BY: Victoria Heath
In its true essence, music should transcend language, culture, religion and time. It is a window into a place, a community and an individual. More often than not, however, we tend to isolate ourselves musically by listening primarily to the mainstream and to what is in our own language. This is only logical. Listening to music in another language may seem somewhat difficult and pointless—why listen to something that you don’t understand lyrically?
Let’s throw that idea out the window for the time being, and challenge that notion.
The “soft power” of music.
Music from the United States in particular has always been considered a feature of the country’s “soft power,” a term coined by international relations academics during the Cold War. Music was a tool used to undermine the Soviets’ influence among everyday people, exemplified by the controversial concerts held by Billy Joel in Russia in 1987. Some cultural historians might even convince you that Rock ‘n’ Roll helped bring down the Iron Curtain.
Today, popular American artists are well known across the globe. For example, while working in Kakuma, Kenya just a few years ago, I suddenly heard R. Kelly’s “Ignition” on the radio. Apparently he was a favorite in the local scene. One song in particular that has proven to transcend global divisions (and outlive the 1980s) is “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey. Honestly, you haven’t lived until you’ve busted your lungs singing this classic at a local karaoke spot in Southeast Asia.
Unfortunately however, music has always been a predominately ‘West to East’ phenomenon. Top 40 charts across the world are usually littered with primarily American and/or British music artists (Directioners and Beliebers are truly global phenomenon). This is for several reasons, one of which is the simple fact that our music industry is massive, and with money comes influence and reach. Another is the plethora of people globally that understand—to some extent—English, thanks to the remnants of the British Empire.
But the world has so much more to offer in terms of music, and it’s time to start opening yourself up to it. A few years ago, I was introduced to the vast, talented world of Pakistani music facilitated by the show Coke Studio. Other varieties of this show also exist in countries across the Middle East, South America, and Africa.
Coke Studio is your window into the soul of Pakistan.
Thanks to its primary sponsors—Coca Cola Pakistan and the band, Strings—this show is now in its eighth season and features a “fusion” of music, such as classical, folk, Bhangra, Qawwali, rock and hip hop. Mirroring the diversity of Pakistan, the music featured ranges in language as well, with songs in Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi, English, Pashto, Turkish, Farsi and Sindhi.
Strings co-founder, Bilal Maqsood speaks to his father, Anwar Maqsood on the set of Coke Studio Pakistan in 2015.
When discussing music with my Pakistani friends, they always mention Coke Studio and eagerly show me videos on YouTube. The pride they have regarding the musical talent brewed in their country is tangible. Personally, I don’t always feel the same way about music from the United States.
Recently, Pakistani music made headlines in Western pop culture because of Zayn Malik, the swoony British-Pakistani who broke hearts when he left One Direction in 2015. In his debut studio album, “Mind of Mine” Malik actually features a song in Urdu—the national language of Pakistan. Called “Flower,” the short track is beyond melodramatic and raw, leaving listeners to question whether or not they were intruding on a private moment between Malik and whoever he was serenading. Overly excited, I shared the song with a friend who informed me that Malik’s Urdu was sub par, but nonetheless, she appreciated his efforts.
Unfortunately Pakistani music has also made headlines across the world because of the recent assassination of Amjad Sabri in Karachi, Pakistan by gunmen believed to be associated with the Tehreek-e-Taliban, the Pakistani branch of the Taliban. Sabri was well known as a Qawwali singer, which is an “energetic musical performance of Sufi Muslim poetry” originating in South Asia that is meant to “lead listeners to a state of religious ecstasy.” Although his death is a stark reminder of the real threats facing Pakistan in regards to extremists who seek to squash the country’s plurality, his funeral, attended by thousands of mourners, is a profound example of the defiant spirit of many Pakistanis who refuse to be controlled by fear. Music has been, and will always be an important tool that shapes and mirrors the soul of this country.
Top Five Coke Studio Pakistan Sessions
Although Zayn Malik has yet to perform on Coke Studio, there are hundreds of other Pakistani artists featured that will restore your faith in music. So, in the spirit of celebrating music and expanding your musical tastes, I’ve compiled a (biased) list of the Top 5 sessions featured on Coke Studio Pakistan that you need to listen to right now.
“To Kia Hua (So What?),” performed by Bilal Khan.
Image Source: wikimedia.org
This song always tears my heart apart, especially since I learned what the lyrics mean. For example, Khan starts the song off by singing, “The evening is the same, but you’re not here. So now this journey is just what it is.” A ballad of a heartbroken man, I always pull this song from the depths of my music library whenever I need to wallow in my own tears.
“Tajdar-e-Haram (King of the Holy Mosques),” performed by Atif Aslam.
Atif Aslam is always fantastic, and this Qawwali, originally made famous by the Sabri brothers, showcases his versatility. In fact, Aslam has now embraced the world of Bollywood with his talent. Although some Pakistanis view his migration to the Indian music scene as a slight “betrayal,” (to understand this you need to look into the political issues between India and Pakistan), his music is undeniably influential.
“Dholna (Play the Drum),” performed by Atif Aslam.
What can I say? I’m an Atif Aslam fanatic. This song is by far one of my favorites. I really have no words to describe it; you’ll just have to listen.
“Dasht-e-Tanhai (In Desert of My Solitude),” performed by Meesha Shafi.
Meesha Shafi is known for her deep, haunting voice that transforms mere words into beautiful, heartfelt poetry. This is one song where you need to ask someone to translate the lyrics—they’re just so damn beautiful. Don’t worry, I’ve gone ahead and done a bit for you.
Shafi sings, “In the desert of my solitude, O beloved, lingers…silage of your whispers, and mirage of your lips. In the desert of my solitude, beneath soil of distance, blooms…charm of your embrace, as jasmines and tulips.”
“Saari Raat (All Night),” performed by the band, Noori.
This majestic number takes me to another place. I always imagine myself listening to it while swinging lazily in a hammock surrounded by sunflowers and willow trees. Beware though, halfway through the song, Noori picks up the pace, and pushes you off the hammock of relaxation. It’s a brilliant piece of work.
“Dastaan-e-ishq (Tale of Love),” performed by Ali Zafar.
OK, I know I said I would only list 5 songs, but I can’t leave this one out. I won’t even give a description, just some advice—turn up your speakers and close your eyes.
Check out more musical masterpieces from Pakistan by going to Coke Studio’s YouTube page.