After ten successful years as Pakistan’s most popular and enduring music program, Coke Studio will be returning to the air waves in August. Musicians Zohaib Kazi and Ali Hamza take on the mantle of production in the eleventh season of the series. Passionate, determined and talented, the duo is working hard to produce a season that highlights the people, history and culture of Pakistan, in addition to its music and musicians. In an exclusive interview for GT, the two young men talk to Ally Adnan about the upcoming season of Coke Studio, the challenges and pleasures of producing the program, and the dimensions that they plan to add to the music franchise

Coke Studio is one of the most popular – if not the most popular – Pakistani music programs of all time. How did you feel after landing the opportunity of producing Season 11 of the series?

We were thrilled, absolutely thrilled! The initial excitement, albeit great, was short lived because the work came with a tremendous amount of responsibility. Coke Studio is enormously popular all over the world and the program’s fans have high hopes of the show. The responsibility of living up to the expectations is huge. It feels good but is sobering at the same time.

Umber and Rohail Hyatt produced the first six seasons of Coke Studio whereas the last four were made by the Strings duo of Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia. What do you think of the different production styles of the two producer teams?

The two teams were masters in the field. Each had its own unique style and did excellent work for Coke Studio. The Hyatt duo had a great vision for the program and, along with its team, turned it into a marvelous reality.  Maqsood and Kapadia inherited a wildly popular program and carried it forward with great style and success.

“Coke Studio has a way of connecting with people using a language that is understandable, honest and refreshing”

Coke Studio Explorer takes Coke Studio to different parts of Pakistan

What has been your favorite season of Coke Studio thus far?

We do not have any one favorite season but have favorite songs instead. Each season has produced songs that are wonderful and have hijacked our playlists for years.

What is the reason for the immense popularity of Coke Studio?

Coke Studio has a way of connecting with people using a language that is understandable, honest and refreshing. People relate to it. The elements of hope, optimism, empathy, thoughtfulness, unity, and pluralism are hallmarks of the program. They speak to the viewers on an aesthetic level, individually and collectively. The music, of course, is very good.  And it is presented in an effective and interesting manner. The program allows the Pakistani nation to express itself in a uniquely powerful manner. That, perhaps, is the single biggest reason for the phenomenal popularity of the series.

How has Coke Studio contributed to the music of Pakistan?

Coke Studio has successfully brought the diverse, vibrant and inimitable music idiom of the nation to a single platform and helped develop a concordance between traditions that have varied sensibilities, ideas and subjectivities. It has helped blend folk, classical and contemporary music into songs that resonate with the public at large.  Most importantly, it has allowed us to discover, examine, study, and reconstruct our cultural and musical heritage.

The series has been accused of cultural appropriation for the personal gain of money, prestige and fame. Is the accusation fair?

No, it is not. Coke Studio is truly a platform for musicians of different ethnicities, backgrounds and styles to come together and collaborate in an atmosphere that is simultaneously creative, invigorating and harmonious. This, in no way, can be deemed to be cultural appropriation. In fact, it is the exact opposite of cultural appropriation.

How are musicians selected for participation in Coke Studio?

It is a three-step process.

We start by defining an overarching theme for the season. Once that has been done, we explore ways of introducing, exploring and presenting the theme. Finally, we look for musicians who embody the notions of the theme and meet the requirements of the musical pieces that we have in mind.

Do you know, or feel, that nepotism has ever played a part in the selection process?

No. We have been associated with Coke Studio, in one way or another, for a very long time. The people associated with the program treat the program with great reverence and respect. It is far too important to them to allow the ills of nepotism and favouritism affect its merit. The exceptional quality of the program is sufficient testimony to the fact that it has always been produced with integrity, honesty and professionalism.

How can a talented musician – one who does not have money, influence, clout, or social connections – apply to audition for Coke Studio?

Coke Studio has an active email address – [email protected] – that is meant to receive demo videos and audio files. We listen to all submissions very carefully and conscientiously, in order to be fair and because we genuinely like discovering new talent.

We have expanded the selection process in Season 11, where we have ventured out of the studios to go to the field and actively find musicians to feature in a new module that we have named Coke Studio Explorer.

What is the new module, Coke Studio Explorer, that is being introduced with Season 11 of the show about?

Coke Studio Explorer takes Coke Studio to different parts of Pakistan. It uses music to explore the diverse cultures, locales, traditions, and values of the country and celebrates the spirit, strength and resilience of its people. The program is centered around a few amazingly talented and driven musicians whose songs will do Pakistan proud and help put the unique music of the country out on the international landscape. The musicians represent all provinces of Pakistan. We hope that the module will spark a vibrant conversation about diversity, pluralism and understanding amongst viewers.

How is Season 11 of Coke Studio going to be different from the programs produced by Strings and the Hyatt husband and wife team?

It will be different from the seasons produced by Strings and the Hyatt husband and wife team in the same manner that we are different from Bilal, Faisal, Umber, and Rohail. Each person is unique and brings his own personality, intellect and vision to the table. Viewers of the program will notice the difference in the way we approach the program.

The tagline of Coke Studio has been changed from “Sound of the Nation” to “Spirit of the Nation” in Season 11. What does the change signify?

The change is not final and still being discussed. If it happens, it will be a consequence of the evolution of Coke Studio. The program no longer represents just the music of Pakistan and is a veritable celebration of its culture, ethos and character, today. The new tagline – Spirit of the Nation – will, therefore, be more apropos given the expanded influence, popularity and scope of the program.

Coke Studio has an active email address — [email protected] — that is meant to receive demo videos and audio files. We listen to all submissions very carefully and conscientiously

What challenges did you face while producing Season 11?

The two of us had worked with Coke Studio in the past and had an idea of the work that producers needed to do to produce the series. Nevertheless, the scope of the work was immense and far greater than what we had imagined. The program asks for a lot, but we found its demanding nature to be a source of strength, energy and motivation. We were happy to give Coke Studio all that it wanted plus some more.

What pleasures did producing the season afford you?

The greatest pleasure, without a doubt, was the act of putting all the diverse, disparate and different elements of the program together and seeing them come together as a single, unique and meaningful entity.

A lot of time, energy and effort has been put into producing Season 11 of Coke Studio. What would constitute success for the program?

The appreciation of its viewers. We are looking for nothing else.

Photographs by Insiya Syed

Ally Adnan lives in Dallas and writes about culture, history and the arts. He tweets @allyadnan and can be reached at [email protected].

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