Pakistani Music and a Battle of the Brands: The Musical


Before you get ahead of yourselves, no I’m not going to be singing. You don’t want to hear that. Trust me. This is just me trying to be clever, as you know I am.

Act 1: The warriors enter the arena.

Music and Pakistan have developed a relationship akin to estranged lovers in recent years. They both obviously love each other but there’s always something getting in the way of this most joyous union. At times, Mr. Fundamentalist Right tries way too hard to woo Pakistan, keeping music at arm’s length. At other times, Mr. Music says Ms. Pakistan doesn’t give him a chance while Ms. Pakistan’s mum, Rishta Aunty, screams ‘Haram’ with her hands in her ears in the background.

For the last 9 years though, Pakistani Music has had a shiny new muse, Coke Studio. Draped in red, this show spawned as a marketing ploy by Coca-Cola. With legendary duo Strings at the helm, it brought the romance back to Pakistan and Music’s relationship. Suddenly they danced to the same tunes, year after year. Be it “Aya Laariye” or even the horribly overplayed, overused and overrated “Zaalima Coca-Cola Pila De”.

Over time, that relationship stagnated. Music would go away for the whole year and come back once a year when its muse would return. And like Elizabeth Swan, Pakistan would meet her love with gusto, only to watch him leave again.

Cut to 2017, and a long lost muse making its triumphant return! The original season of Pepsi Battle of the Bands, which aired in the bygone era of 2002, gave us legendary bands like Arroh and EP. It didn’t just celebrate Pakistani music but enabled talent to be realized. Thus, season 2 had massive shoes to fill. That, and for the first time in years, Pepsi seemed to have woken up. Realizing that they can’t just let Zaalima Coke walk all over them, year in year out.

It’s a battle that has been 9 years in the making, with Coke clearly at an advantage. I mean Coke has Strings, Umair Jaswal and every desi tharki’s crush, Momina Mustehsan.

However, the battle isn’t won just because of big guns! You need strategy and Coke’s is about 9 years out of date.

Act 2: Blood on the Dance Floor

Pepsi’s Battle of the Bands started a full week before Coke Studio and the nation fell in love! Well, love actually began as a spark, which Pepsi lit with a cover mashup of “Do Pal Ka Jeevan” and “Dekha Na Tha” sung by Aatif Aslam, Meesha Shafi and Fawad Khan. Aatif and Meesha gave Coke Studio some of its biggest hits last year. Their songs didn’t just go viral, they took over radios and media players all over. Meesha even had the honour (or displeasure, can’t say with this one) of singing Coke’s theme song, “Zaalima”.

Fawad on the other hand, was a surprise.

The EP lead singer turned South Asian heartthrob reminded us that he can sing. And the hearts of Pakistani girls everywhere collectively melted. The video for the song also revealed Shahi Hassan as a part of the project. Shahi, for those of you who don’t know, and whom I shall now unfriend, was a member of the legendary, even more legendary than Strings, Vital Signs. Pakistan’s Original Rock/Pop band.

But those are just the big guns, the judges of the show. BOB has so much more to offer. That is, the bands themselves. I mentioned how the nation fell in love earlier. Well Pakistan already idolizes the judges. But we fell in love with the bands! Hailing from all over the country and from every genre imaginable, they took the stage with their instruments, jammed their hearts out and wowed our pants off.

Some were instant hits. An example is finalist and my favourite, Kashmir. Fawad Khan likened guitarist Vais Khan to Slash and lead singer Bilal’s soulful voice over their experimental and progressive sound works like magic on stage. Other bands took more warming up to but there was no doubt, Pakistani music was alive and well.

At the other end of the pavilion, we have Coke Studio. The hype around this tenth anniversary season almost matched that of the new iPhone. And much like the new iPhone, the season seems to have fallen flat on all expectations. Last year, they gave us the emotional “Ae Rah e Haq ke Shaheedon”. I doubt there was a single person in all of Pakistan who didn’t tear up during that song. If you didn’t, we can’t be friends.  This year, the hope was to do the same with the national anthem. And my, did they butcher it.

The song was disjointed, the performances forced and contrived and absolutely devoid of all emotion. We should have taken this as warning for forthcoming events as this wasn’t the only song they butchered.

I feel so bad for Qurat ul Ain Baloch. The poor thing was unknowingly made an accessory to murder. “Laal Meri Pat” is a massive and iconic Sufi Qalam and Coke Studio tried to make a progressive rock ballad out of it. The only thing it achieved was progressive disgust as I and all of Twitter were left aghast.

Facebook seems to have been on board with this heinous act but then again, it’s Facebook.

So the landmark tenth season had bad songs? That’s all that’s wrong here, right? I mean even icons like Mariah Carey have had off days. Well, no. There’s more wrong here then just bad performances, we just didn’t notice. Each year, Coke Studio would give us a few good songs and for a few months Pakistani music was alive. Then it would go and most of the artists involved wouldn’t make any new music for the rest of the year. Those who did would get flack for it because they relied on a little Indian help. What’s worse is, you pretty much had to be someone already or know someone to get on to Coke Studio.

While there are obvious exceptions to this, the importance of sources and nepotism became apparent in the tenth season. I mean we have Ali Zafar’s little brother, Sajjad Ali’s little girl and Shuja Haider’s little “friend” (okay no that sounds inappropriate. Read: friend) as part of the line up. Why it took us ten years to notice, I can’t say.

A work colleague told me recently: “Yeh Pakistan hai! yahan har cheez dus saal late ati hai!”

As Coke Studio 10 chugs along with lazily produced covers, relying too much on the people singing them than the music itself, BOB edges closer to finding Pakistan’s best amateur band. At this stage, both finalists Badnaam and Kashmir have massive followings already. I mean the show had a massive effect on the Pakistani youth from the moment it started. When a fan favourite band, Kamaaj didn’t make the top 8, within hours the hashtag #BringBackKamaaj was trending across the country. Compared to “Zaalima” going viral last year, this was completely organic and honestly very rare in Pakistan.

The music is also leaps and bounds ahead of what its competitor is bringing to the table. While yeah, there are a few hitches here and there but these guys aren’t seasoned professionals (what’s your excuse Coke Studio?) the songs are incredibly creative and catchy, regardless of them being an original or a cover. Heck, Badnaam’s “Ishqnama” mashup for the finals had me smiling from ear to ear for two days straight. Beyond that, each show saw a performance from established musicians such as the incomparable Zeb Bangash and the amazing Sara Haider, performing new and original songs, and having more fun than they ever did on Coke Studio.

That last part is possibly me being too fanciful, but hey.


Act 3: And the winner of the X Factor is?

Okay wrong show I know but you get what I mean. One of the two, in my not so humble view, has the X Factor and one clearly doesn’t. You should be able to guess by now that my vote goes to Battle of the Band, for reasons you should understand by now as well.

The show is not only exciting but it’s finally giving Pakistan a proper platform for her to romance her one true love, music. And let’s face it, Pakistan Idol was a joke of a show, the only good thing that came from that train wreck was us meeting Qandeel Baloch (RIP queen) for the first time. It also means, and I’ve alluded to this while not expressly stating it because I was waiting for this moment to do so, Pakistani music won’t become a seasonal cottage industry.

I say that because not only does Pepsi give the winning band (please let it be Kashmir) a record contract, but also allows us, the general public to see the talent hidden in our country. Previously we had to rely on the underground music scene to see Pakistani music in its rawest form. Which isn’t the most accessible medium. But now that we’ve seen it and we’ve gotten invested and involved, my hope is that we appreciate it all the more. So I believe the future is bright for Pakistani music. All credit can’t go to Pepsi because hello! Patari gave us Abid Brohi but Pepsi did help push the action to the centre stage and there I hope it will stay.

On a final note, at this point, I hope Shaan Shahid has eaten up his earlier tweet about Battle of the Bands having no bands. I did tweet a shady reply to that already (it had the words “shaan mein ghustakhi”) but I just want to reiterate.

While Pepsi was late to the batter’s block, they hit a home-run. Damn, this is for a Pakistani audience! I should have made a cricket reference.

And curtain!

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