People & Society

The words behind Coke Studio

Updated 29 Nov, 2018 02:04pm
Coke Studio rehearsals
Coke Studio rehearsals

Not very long ago, Coke Studio was in the eye of the storm for its rendition of Ko Ko Korina, arguably the first ever Pakistani pop song. Composed by Sohail Rana, sung by Ahmed Rushdie and picturised on Waheed Murad, the song has been a staple in Pakistan’s pop music landscape since it was released in 1966. Coke Studio’s version, however, drew a lot of criticism for its sloppy execution.

In the past decade, Coke Studio has grown to be the country’s largest music platform. During this time, the platform has revived many an old classic to applause and appreciation but several of these performances have been peppered with noticeable linguistic errors.

Herald got in touch with Zahra Sabri, who translated folk and classical poetry for nine seasons of Coke Studio, to share her experience of working for the show. Zahra talked about the reservations she has about the way poetry is being dealt with and delivered on the Coke Studio platform. She also talked about the impact of this on the music industry as a whole. Below are excerpts and an abridged recording of her conversation with Ahmer Naqvi, the former COO of music platform Patari, and a writer with a close eye on pop culture in Pakistan.

The words behind Coke Studio

Naqvi: Zahra, having worked with Coke Studio for nine seasons and translating all the episodes from Season 2 to 10, what was your big takeaway from the entire experience in terms of what you learnt about the state of poetry and arts in Pakistan?

Zahrah Sabri: I think the state of poetry and arts in Pakistan can to some extent be judged by the fact that a forum like Coke Studio became very big in our times. Our folk and classical literary traditions are very rich and Coke Studio reflected years of artistic talent and thought in the way the music was produced and showcased.

However, Coke Studio is not the first time that the folk and pop/rock combination has been produced. If you remember, Muhammad Ali Shehki appeared in a famous pairing with Allan Faqir to create the hit song Allah Allah Kar Bhaiya. Shehki was to Allan Faqir, we may say, what Meesha Shafi was to Arif Lohar in Season 3’s Alif Allah,Jugni.

Jugni by Arif Lohar and Meesha Shafi

The way I see it, one of the chief reasons why a forum like this – one which celebrates and reworks older poetic material – became the largest musical platform now, rather than before, is because today, while we still have some decent musical talent, we are facing a serious crisis of good poetic material for lyrics.

The studio’s drawing upon classical poetry – kalaam – and famous compositions in order to create new and contemporary music has served to plug a growing gap in our music landscape.

Ahmer Naqvi: And what, in your opinion, is the reason for that crisis?

Zahra: There is a generational incapacity in broad sections of our young population to achieve original and meaningful self-expression in major local languages. This is largely due to the effect of a skewed and failing education system. Young musicians fail to express with verve and clarity the fresh sentiments of a new generation. This has contributed to the weakening of Pakistan’s pop/rock scene over the past two decades.

Another reason is that Pakistan Television Network, which had long served as an institution that protected and promoted local artists, has lost its erstwhile prestige and influence. On the other hand, our private channels opened their doors to Bollywood where an intense lyrical crisis has persisted for years. The language of lyrics in Hindi films has always been Urdu, but the quality of these lyrics has become increasingly formulaic, shallow and meaningless.

So you see, this crisis affected industries on both sides of the border and this is the background in which a forum like Coke Studio, which revives and reinterprets old classics, became as popular as it did throughout this region.

Naqvi: In the years that you translated poetry for Coke Studio, how did you perceive your responsibilities? What did you feel you were trying to achieve as a translator?

Zahrah: I translated over 200 songs with the generous aid and assistance of a whole team of native speakers and academic experts who were kind enough to contribute to our understanding of their languages. My goal was to try to translate each and every line of poetry as faithfully as possible so our audience can also come to know – and subsequently understand – the popular works of famous poets.

When it came to the folk realm, this seemed to be an opportunity to put to paper many popular songs which may never have appeared in print before. Hence, we agreed to run these songs not just in standardised Roman script and English translations, but also in their original scripts. I felt all the extra effort involved in trying to pin down the exact spellings of Seraiki, Pashto, Brahui or Punjabi words was worth it, because in the end we contributed to increasing the literacy of these languages.

Later on, we also decided to provide Urdu translations for Pashto, Balochi, Sindhi, Persian or difficult Punjabi songs so Coke Studio could also cater to the needs of our wider domestic audiences.

Naqvi: What you are describing, then, was a unique endeavour to include literary and academic experts for a cultural or entertainment product. But how much of the process at Coke Studio brought new kinds of experiences and realisations for you?

Zahrah: I can hardly describe how rich an educational and artistic experience it was for me. Over the course of nearly ten seasons, I had the opportunity to work with 13 languages and learn their respective scripts. We worked with Seraiki, Sindhi, Pashto, Punjabi, Brahui, Balochi, Braj Bhasha, Marwari, Bengali, Urdu, Persian, Arabic and Turkish.

Even within some of these languages, we saw a variety of living dialects which shifted every few miles across districts and provinces. Sometimes, the Seraiki that came to us seemed to lean more towards Punjabi, and at other times, more towards Sindhi. Sometimes, the dialects of Punjabi also varied. In a song such as Natasha Khan and Ali Zafar’s Yo Soch in Season 10, it was interesting to experience a dialect of Pashto from Mardan which had features which stood out from the Pashto of Peshawar.

Yo Soch by Ali Zafar

A lot of people don’t understand the significance of the Punjabi language for a platform like Coke Studio. There was a time when most of the songs being released were in Punjabi, which reminds us that Pakistan is an ethnically diverse society.

Naqvi: When it came to the musicians and singers who performed on Coke Studio, what did you feel was their general attitude towards understanding the meaning of poetry being sung and delivering it properly?

Zahra: Our flawed education system has been pushing people towards English, especially in larger cities. Though many young people from large urban centres still cannot write or speak fluent English, this over-emphasis on English has led to their understanding of Urdu to become weak.

If you have good immersion in Urdu, that shares Persian and the Indic canon with other local languages such as Punjabi, it becomes possible for you to have a deeper understanding of many languages spoken in Pakistan, including Sindhi and Pashto. But investing in English will not achieve similar results for the simultaneous promotion and protection of a wide variety of our local languages and traditions.

Young singers who come from small towns usually have a much stronger grasp of Urdu, and many also know proper Punjabi. However, many artists who have become big names in the music industry during the past decade have fallen into the recurring habit of getting the basic lyrics wrong.

The language most affected is Persian, which is reflective of our growing distance from our own classical traditions. The second most affected language is Punjabi, because artists sometimes just assume they know it and understand it. But in reality their knowledge is quite weak.

For example, Tajdar-e-Haram is an iconic qawwali with poetry in Urdu, Persian, Braj Bhasha, and Arabic.

Atif Aslam has done a great job is singing the poetry, turning it into a powerful and heartfelt prayer. However, perhaps because he picked up a faulty copy of the lyrics written in Roman Atif Aslam has done a great job is singing the poetry, turning it into a powerful and heartfelt prayer. However, perhaps because he picked up a faulty copy of the lyrics written in Roman Urdu from the internet, he ended up making an utter muck of quite a few of the Persian verses and even a couple of Urdu ones as well.

Tajdar-e-Haram by Atif Aslam

Naqvi: So, younger artists may have a general sense of what a song is about but not a deep understanding of the lyrics. But why is it even important for an artist to be faithful to a poet or lyricist’s original words or to understand the meaning of each line being sung? Why does it matter that with a change or distortion of words, certain nuances are getting lost?

Zahra: It’s not just that certain nuances are getting lost in what these artists are singing. They are actually singing some completely meaningless lines and you can imagine what that means for the transmission of meaning for classical poetry that has been traditionally passed on from one generation to another. What this basically proves is that the artists don’t fully understand what they are singing. If they did, they wouldn’t make such mistakes.

Coke Studio has had a very wide influence, not just in Pakistan but also in India. This is why, we should be careful to ensure that our efforts are doing more good than harm to all this classical and folk material the country’s largest music platform is drawing from.

Naqvi: The process of producing music at Coke Studio is different from how music is produced by a record label. Coke Studio, through its music, is delivering a corporate advertisement. So then why should we worry about matters like correct words or diction in poetry as long as their product continues to sell and is a hit?

Zahra: I agree that the corporate aspect of the project has a definite effect on the production process. I am not suggesting that such mistakes have not occurred on any other platform in the past. However, they have occurred far too often from what has been Pakistan’s largest source of popular music for the past several years, despite the producers’ cognisance of wanting to be faithful to the text and poetry of old classics.

Overall, though, I must credit both Rohail Hyatt and Strings for taking proper notice of these things, once and if they were apprised of it. If possible, they would try to rerecord the faulty parts, though often it was too late for that. Where errors persisted in the faulty audio, both Rohail Hyatt and Strings agreed that rather than try to cover up artists’ mistakes, the studio should at least acknowledge the fault by keeping the original poetry in the subtitles of the songs.

In my opinion, Coke Studio has promoted a culture where many new singers have found a means to earn fame by re-singing old classics. But it is not just the re-singing of older classical and folk poetry that is problematic. Even new lyrics being penned down during the production process may end up being rather suspect. The worst case I saw was in Season 10 when a sub-producer brought us a stanza of Persian verses which he had written himself, without knowing any Persian at all. I was mystified as to where he might have got it from because it was absolutely senseless.

Sanam Marvi’s Sighra Aaween Saanwal Yaar

Thankfully, Strings had the foresight to have the verses checked before the song went into the final recording and told the sub-producer that they could not knowingly sanction such gibberish even if a majority of the audience might be unable to distinguish fake words in a language they didn’t understand.

From what I have observed, regardless of whether it is Rohail Hyatt at the helm or Strings, these kinds of mistakes can unwittingly be made under any kind of producer, because the format of the show itself affects the process of production. The same artist who might make blunders while singing on the Coke Studio platform may actually record the same song with fewer or no errors for his or her own album. The reason is that an artist or a band can spend as much as a month on a particular song for their personal albums, whereas in Coke Studio almost 30 songs are being created, rehearsed and finalised in a matter of three or four months.

Here, the sponsor is not some art academy or a music company but a corporate organisation, a soda seller, whose marketing requirements mean that a premium is placed on doing everything in a great hurry, perpetuating a culture of mistakes.

Naqvi: Can you give us some specific examples of such mistakes?

Zahra: For example, in Sanam Marvi’s song Sighra Aaween Saanwal Yaar in Season 4, she made one quite serious mistake which members of the audience also noticed. Instead of saying ‘nafi asbaat’ which means ‘negation and affirmation’ (i.e. ‘no god, but God’), she got confused and said ‘nabi asbaat’ (prophet and affirmation) which significantly changes the meaning of the verses. However, we kept ‘nafi asbaat’ in the captions because the point was to educate audiences about such an important piece of traditional poetry as ‘alif allaah chambe di booti’ rather than misinform them.

Then, we can take the example of Meesha Shafi. In three of her major Punjabi tracks, she has distorted verses. In Chori Chori in Season 3, she ended up saying something to the effect of ‘Every moment of my beloved, my life’s wir’ (jis da nah ik pal, wir meri jaan da). I was so confused about this when I heard it, because wir is not a recognisable Punjabi word. Now weer is a word – it means ‘brother’. But what on earth is wir? Therefore, I consulted Reshma’s original song, and, sure enough, the implication of the real line is ‘My beloved doesn’t appear before me for a single moment, he doesn’t want me to live’ (disda nah ik pal, wairi meri jaan da). Now this makes proper sense because wairi in Punjabi is indeed a real word! It means ‘enemy’. Hence, the meaning becomes ‘jaan ka dushman’ (mortal enemy), which is an idiomatic Urdu phrase everyone would recognise.

Chori Chori by Meesha Shafi

In another song, Sun Ve Balori in Season 7, Meesha Shafi has accidentally turned the word ‘saanhwaan’ (breaths) into ‘raahwaan’ (roads/paths). Madam Noor Jahan’s original line had been ‘saanhwaan wich agg jayi baldi’ which implies ‘the state of my love and passion is so great that it feels as if my very breath is on fire’. But with the change, it means something like ‘the state of my love and passion is so great that it feels as if the roads are burning’. A world of difference. A friend of mine, when he heard Meesha Shafi’s version, was wondering why the roads are burning!

Sun Ve Balori by Meesha Shafi

In Season 8, in an absolutely beautiful song called Ajj Din Vehre Vich, Ali Zafar skips a whole word by accident in a very famous she‘r of Ghalib that he recites near the end. Naturally, this affects the meaning of the verses. Anyone who knows Ghalib even a little knows this she‘r by heart, but somehow in the rush of rehearsals and recordings at the studio and the environment all this creates, an error like this was made.

Also in Season 8, a band called Siege completely defaced the Marwari classic Khari Neem. Almost every sentence was distorted in utterly meaningless ways. If you compare the audio to the captions, you will notice significant diversions between the two. Much of the audio is the kind of gibberish that people who speak the language would not be able to make sense of.

These are just a few examples of some of the more straightforward mistakes to give you an idea of the nature of the errors.

Naqvi: What effect do you think these kinds of mistakes or oversights have had for our music industry as a whole?

Zahra: Some months ago, I heard on the radio a singer called Zaryab Sultan, whom I don’t know at all and had never heard before, singing a cover of Atif Aslam’s version of Tajdar-e Haram. What was disturbing for me was that he copied every single one of the dozen or so mistakes and distortions that Atif Aslam had made while singing this qawwali.

Zaryab Sultan could have gone back and learned the words of the qawwali from the Sabri Brothers’ original version of it. He could even have consulted the corrected text of the song that we had ourselves supplied from Coke Studio for the audiences’ benefit. But no, he heard Atif Aslam’s audio alone and copied every single mistake from it.

Similarly, Aaya Laariye had so many mistakes that were pointed out to producer Shuja Haider by multiple means, including thousands of comments by members of the audience on YouTube, complaining that the song had been sung wrong. Yet, no effort was made to correct these accidental errors even when the Coke Studio version was re-sung by fresh singers in the sequel of Jawani Phir Nahi Ani and now all those errors have been reproduced all over the new film version of this song.

Coke Studio has promoted a culture where many new singers who would perhaps struggle with an original song of their own have found a means to earn fame by re-singing classical material. When someone else’s song is granting them so much in terms of fame and recognition, the very least an artist can do is come prepared and ensure that what they sing is correct. Too many artists are just trying to pick up things randomly from audio tapes of older recordings instead of reaching out to ustaads for a proper understanding of language and poetry. Artists are singing words which do not exist.

Aaya Laariye

There is an existing educational crisis, as a result of which our urban and rural artists are all making mistakes. Coke Studio is merely reflecting this situation, not creating it. But I think now that mistakes are entering and being showcased on a regular basis on such a big and influential platform, then perhaps the platform is also actively contributing to creating a culture of mistakes.

This is why we should try our best to help and restore the few music and arts institutions that do exist in our country.

Naqvi: You acknowledge, of course, that despite these concerns, Coke Studio has had a profound effect on promoting arts and culture in Pakistan and in building bridges between inhabitants of different social worlds within the country?

Zahra: Definitely. Rohail Hyatt’s intellectual and aesthetic vision and efforts in establishing this platform have brought immense advantages for local artists in terms of new kinds of artistic and financial opportunities, and for the audience in terms of increasing cultural exposure. Numerous languages were brought together onto a single platform and music enthusiasts developed a genuine interest for folk and fusion music.

Coke Studio also served important diplomatic functions for Pakistan. Its early seasons did not only play a part in shaping Pakistan’s international image during a particularly turbulent time, it also helped the country’s self-image. Not only did it inspire the creation of parallel Coke Studio platforms in Middle East, India and Africa, but also proved to have a significant impact on mainstream music in Pakistan and North India than perhaps any musical phenomenon in the past decade.

The reason why many of us Pakistanis loved Coke Studio was because it was thoroughly different from Bollywood. That’s why Indians also loved it so much, and why many of them didn’t like their own Coke Studio, because it wasn’t able to escape the influence of Bollywood. The strength of our Coke Studio was both the different sound of our music and the quality and depth of our lyrics.

We used to mock the musical trends of Bollywood but now those trends are catching up on us as well. When it began, Coke Studio was considered to be a kind of bulwark against such things. This is really a lesson for us and just goes to show that while ratings do tell something important, they don’t tell everything.

Naqvi: What advice would you give to the current producers of Coke Studio for making songs that are lyrically strong?

Zahra: I like the edginess Ali Hamza and Zohaib Kazi have brought to the sound of Coke Studio. But from my past experience of working with Ali Hamza, I think he comes up with some really good ideas and catchy compositions, but the extra effort needed to give a song true depth is often missing. This means that a potentially great song often ends up being rather hollow and forgettable.

Paar Chanaa De by Ali Hamza

I think most of Ali Hamza’s truly great work has been when he has worked with other people’s poetry. His Paar Chanaa De was extremely soulful and elegant. That was an existing folk classic. His Aaja Re Moray Saiyaan which he did with Zeb Bangash and his brother Ali Noor was, in my opinion, one of the best original songs Coke Studio has ever produced. It was built on some really solid and meaningful verses by the famous poet Zehra Nigah, and the mood of the music completely captured and accorded with the poetry in a really beautiful way.

One thing that has worried me, I must admit, is that Season 11 has fallen into the habit of going with faulty and made-up spellings for many local languages. The producers have been apprised of this several times and they know about it. It is simple – if there is no time or money to get the spellings for the original scripts of these songs checked then it is better to publish only the translations and not the lyrics of original songs. You should not knowingly allow the cybersphere to be flooded with linguistic and spelling errors.

I also think our younger musicians need better collaborations with experienced lyricists and poets in order to introduce a bit of depth, individuality and variation to their songs. We definitely have seen this among a few of the younger artists in Coke Studio in the past. Abbas Ali Khan’s Mujhay Baar Baar in Season 7 made expressive and meaningful use of verses by a modern, contemporary mystical poet. Sab Aakho Ali Ali and Mohsin Abbas Haider’s Uddi Ja in Season 9 were songs that stood out for their lyrics.

Mohsin Abbas Haider’s Uddi Ja

There are also other examples of non-traditional original lyrics which were also very powerful. Bilal Khan’s work in his own songs, Jaffer Zaidi’s work in his band Kaavish’s songs, and, above all, Bohemia’s immensely fresh and original penmanship for his songs are talented examples of that. Hence, thankfully, we do see this depth in some of the younger artists, but not as often as we should from the largest music platform of the country.

That being said, I think, in many ways the prime value of Coke Studio has already been availed. New audiences have been created for folk and classical music among a new generation during trying times for our music industry. Now, perhaps, it is time for other forums other than those linked with multinational soft drink or ice cream companies to try to make a more visible appearance in our industry.

Ahmer Naqvi is Creative Head at Teeli. He was previously the COO of the music platform Patari. He has been writing on music, cricket and pop culture for the past decade.

*Zahra Sabri has translated folk and classical poetry for nine seasons of the music programme Coke Studio. She is a doctoral student in Mughal history and Indo-Muslim literatures at the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University, and has taught History and Urdu literature at the Aga Khan University and the University of Karachi’s Pakistan Study Centre. Her translations for Coke Studio are archived at *

The full transcript can be read here: