Sabahat Quadri Works


Threads of Culture

My brother-in-law, a caucasian former-Catholic from New York (I’m South Asian, in case that wasn’t clear), loves two things about Pakistan. (Well, three, if you count my sister.) He loves the food, and he loves the music.

The food is understandable. Every time he comes to Karachi, we take him all over the city and let him delight in a multitude of tastes, usually meaty, sometimes spicy, always delicious. As the largest port in Pakistan, Karachi is a melting pot of every ethnicity across the country and they all bring their foods with them. James* has eaten Hunter beef burgers on rickety plastic tables in New Town with their special tangy mustard; he’s had kabab rolls from DHA Market (and Red Apple, Hot & Spicy and almost every other famous kabab roll eatery), eating in the car because it was too hot to sit outside. He’s eaten bun kababs (all kinds — with meat, potatoes, and egg) standing at the Tipu Bun Kabab corner in Clifton, and he’s jealously hoarded the crispy parathas served at a dinner at Barbecue Tonight.

The next time he comes to Karachi, he says, he’s going to bring a special ‘kabab roll fund’ so that he can eat kabab rolls (grilled beef cubes in mouthwatering spices wrapped in a crispy paratha with onions and tangy green chutney) round the clock. He would like to try them for breakfast.

Then there’s the music. When Mom was alive, James would enjoy hanging out with her for the stories and the advice that she loved to dole out. She was the one who introduced him to Coke Studio. Back then — this would be about 7 years ago — Coke Studio was already a phenomenally successful show. For the uninitiated, Coke Studio, as the name suggests, is a sponsored music show featuring live performances from Pakistani musicians and singers.

*Name changed to preserve anonymity.

Traditional instruments given a new lease of life in Rohail Hyatt’s Coke Studio (image courtesy of Coke Studio’s Facebook page)

Lost Music Found

Started by Rohail Hyatt 14 years ago, the show sourced local musicians, singers, and songwriters and breathed new life into old folk, popular, and Sufi music. It had a rich vein of music that could be tapped. Pakistan, formerly India, and still a part of the Indian Subcontinent, has a deep history of Mughal and Sufi poetry, literature, and art to draw from. As a predominantly Muslim country, it focuses on religious themes, but it also has more contemporary poetry and songs on a wide variety of topics, such as love and despair, politics, and satire. When Coke Studio started its journey, it reached down into the bowels of the country and pulled out what many had thought was long lost. It has since cemented its place in our history as a vital player in the evolution of Pakistan’s music.

Before Coke Studio arrived, however, back in the ‘90s, Pakistan’s fragile democracy was a battle between two opposing parties; the PPP, headed by the Oxford-trained Benazir Bhutto, and the PML-N (back then, it was the IJI), headed by Nawaz Sharif, who had deep ties to Saudi Arabia (as a protégé of Zia-ul-Haq, Nawaz was Saudi Arabia’s man in the Subcontinent) and the Taliban. This may seem like a non-sequitur in an article about music, but it’s essential to understand just why Coke Studio is and has been so important to Pakistan, and not just another music show.

Some Context

You see, Pakistan was strategically important to the US in the late seventies and the eighties. The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan and if they succeeded in taking it over, they would control some of the largest reservoirs of natural gas in the world — something the empire couldn’t allow. So the CIA, with the help of Saudi Arabia, installed a dictator in Pakistan (Zia-ul-Haq) and paid him enormous sums to brainwash, train, and raise an army of Mujahideen using Saudi Arabia’s particular brand of Salafism — Islam’s own version of Puritanism. They indoctrinated mostly Pashtun men, boys, and adolescents (because they shared a language with the Afghanis) and sent them across the border to fight a holy war in support of their fellow Afghan Muslims. (Remember Stallone’s Rambo III, remember that long before 9/11, Osama bin Laden and the Taliban were glorified in Hollywood for their heroism and bravery.)

The CIA strategy worked. In May 1988, the Soviet Union fell and the Taliban took over Afghanistan. Coincidentally, in August 1988, Zia’s plane blew up, killing him, several Pakistani generals, and rumour has it, a senior CIA agent, effectively ending 11 years of an oppressive pseudo-Islamic dictatorship in Pakistan. But it left chaos in its wake. The yo-yo of democratic parties that followed in the 11 years after Zia’s death relied heavily on the US (Benazir Bhutto) and Saudi Arabia (Nawaz Sharif) for funds to keep their governments alive. And while the two parties bickered and bandied accusations of corruption and nepotism at each other (not entirely unfounded), the mosques where once men were trained for a war found new ways to pass their time.

The Fallout

These mosques, along with schools for women funded by Saudi Arabia, turned their attention to the population of Pakistan, deploring what they called the ‘Hindu’ influence (but was actually just the culture of the region). In direct contrast to Salafism, Sufism is mystical, it’s spiritual, a movement that encourages an individual’s self-discovery, of his or her own path to Allah:

Do all you can to become a bird of the Way to God;

— Fariduddin Attar (1145–1221 CE)

Sufism travelled from Persia to India with the Mughals and left an indelible mark on the region. It affected the language, the literature, the art, the theatre, and the politics. Here were Rumi’s contemporaries, influences, and descendants — Amir Khusro, Bulleh Shah, Sachal Sarmast, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, Abdullah Shah Ghazi, to name a few— searching for the same divine love as Shams Al-Tabrizi.

The Saudi influence crushed Sufism in Pakistan, and it targeted music, literature, and art specifically. It was especially scornful of the tradition of gathering at shrines of Sufi saints and celebrating those saints with songs of praise, or rhythmic drum-based dances in a haze of hashish and bhang — commonly taken to find the spiritual path so many Sufis described in their poetry and a major source of our folk music and theatre. Salafists objected to everything about the shrines —the drugs, the dancing, the stories, the worship. But especially the music.

Millions of Pakistanis stopped listening to music because some random Imam from a Saudi-funded mosque, or some alima (a female scholar of Islam) insisted that music was forbidden.

There is no such ban in the Quran on music, nor did the Prophet ever say (directly, that is. Some sources have interpreted some of his sayings as an indirect suggestion that instruments were forbidden) that music was disliked or haraam (forbidden). Salafists insist that because the only instrument in use during the time of the Prophet was the daf (a drum made of wood and parchment), all other instruments and musical styles were “innovations” (deviations from what is acceptable), and therefore, must be forsaken. The word they used, over and over, is bidat, a belief that rejects the orthodox tenets of Islam, or heresy.

(This narrative that anything that deviates from what existed 1400 years ago is bidat is, in my opinion, and to say the least, misguided. This view obviously doesn’t apply to cars or air-conditioning or computers, NONE of which existed in the Prophet’s time, and ALL of which are commonplace in Saudi Arabia. If there had been nuance or context in the blanket judgement of what did or did not constitute bidat, I might even have been swayed. Of all the people I heard this from, however, nuance was glaringly absent.)

Salafism’s hold persisted for many years. It tamped down everyday customs where music or performance of any kind was involved, using religious dogma to make them unacceptable to a people once immersed in them. The folk songs, the poetry, the drumbeats, the old instruments, these all became the purview of a select elite who evaded the Farhat Hashmis and the Abdullah Ghazis of Pakistan.

Locked out of their own culture, the vast majority of the new generation looked across the border and emulated Bollywood, and further afield to the West instead. Even when music crept back into our TV shows and movies after 9/11 and after Saudi Arabia decided to lower its profile globally, it was inspired by India and the UK or the US.

Born Again

Against this background, Rohail Hyatt launched Coke Studio with songs such as Alif Allah Chambay di Booti (Jugni) and Shaman Paiyan, fusing long-forgotten traditions from our history with his own brand of modernism. Next to musicians playing the sarangi, he sat rock musicians with electric guitars; in the strains of a traditional qawwali, you could hear the piano melding with the sound of the harmonium, cymbals and sitars competed for air in between songs of valour and heroism.

Coke Studio chose to recreate and immortalise beloved songs from legendary singers like Iqbal Bano’s Dasht-e-Tanhai, songs that weren’t as popular or as well-known with the new Gen-Z crowd. It brought to television and a mass audience the kind of music that was traditionally played in small gatherings and musical evenings by that select elite I mentioned earlier. Mr Hyatt covered a staggering variety of music, from folk, to cinematic, to rock and pop, to qawwalis, to ghazals and nazms and naats and hamds. The productions were elaborate and to a high standard considering the lack of progress in the industry for so many years, particularly the sound engineering and the composition.

Even after Mr Hyatt stepped down, Coke Studio followed his best practices, achieving a cult-like status not only in Pakistan, but across the region. Expectations rose each season and were met, at times exceeded.

Atif Aslam in the studio for the iconic Tajdar-e-Haram.


In Season 8, Coke Studio released the popular qawwali Tajdar-e-Haram. Originally sung by the Sabri Brothers and widely recognised within Pakistan, Coke Studio’s rendition had Atif Aslam as the lead vocal. Using Mr Hyatt’s signature style (though this was produced by Shiraz Uppal), the iconic qawwali sticks to most of the original lyrics — hauntingly beautiful Urdu and Persian lyrics, which is something Coke Studio aficionados have come to expect — and covers it with a blend of old and new in instruments as well as singers (the backup vocals are members of the Sabri clan that recorded the original qawwali). Its reception was a wild surprise, becoming the first Pakistani song on YouTube to garner 100 million views.

As of writing this article, the song sits at 393 million views and 3.3 million likes on YouTube, and it’s not the only one.

This is the song that Mom used to introduce James to Pakistani music. To this day, James can sing the whole 10.2-minute song even though he has no clue what the words are or what they mean, and he thinks Atif Aslam walks on water.

Coke Studio introduced my brother-in-law to the exquisite variety and depth in Pakistani music, but it also preserved and revitalised it for a whole nation. I can even forgive the messages of commercialism, colonialism, and capitalism stemming from a show named after an American brand (that is, regardless of the show’s popularity, still not able to compete with Pepsi here) because it pushed back against the (admittedly waning) influence of the Salafists.

Even though there are still visible markers of Saudi Arabia’s influence in Pakistan (such as the burqas or the hijabs that you really didn’t see prior to the eighties), there has been a notable shift back towards our culture, our traditions, our literature, our art, our music. We’ve begun to accept that we are South Asian, not (as so many Americans persist in calling us) Middle Eastern or Arab.

Face Forward

Today’s Coke Studio, at Season 14, has marked an important shift in its journey. Instead of looking to the past, it’s turned towards the future, but it’s doing so while holding on to the thread of an ancient culture that, hopefully, will not die. This season is a mix of genres and styles (rock, rap, pop, folk, even emo), a visual treat, but most importantly, almost entirely original compositions and lyrics. This is significant because music in the region and in Pakistan in particular has traditionally been a collaboration between poet, composer, and singer. It’s rare for one person to be all three.

This year, however, fresh blood has crept into the Studio, and original new music is emerging in a way that can only be good for the industry. With these new songs and young artists, you can hear the echoes of bygone poets, you can hear the delicacy of the sitar and the dhol beating like a pulsing vein amidst the electronic drum pads and the groove samplers. They’re building on, not over, their legacy. I, for one, can’t wait to see where they go next.

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