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The Challenge of Fusion

India’s most talked about music show marks a turning point in more ways than one

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Deepti Unni Jul 04, 2011
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Photo Courtesy MTV

Coke Studio began life in Brazil as Estúdio Coca-Cola Zero ”“ a one-time marketing plan to sell pre-packaged music on Nokia 5310 phones ”“ where two different Brazilian artists recorded a show fusing different styles of music. In 2008, the show crossed over into Pakistan and underwent a transformation that was nothing less than magical. Featuring artists across genres and styles, the show fused the best of contemporary Pakistani music with Sufi, folk and traditional classical music. The show featured artists like Abida Parveen, Strings, Ali Zafar, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Shafqat Amanat Ali, Atif Aslam as well as a whole host of incredible underground artists, under the direction of producer Rohail Hyatt, to whom much of the credit for the show’s success goes.

Coke Studio Pakistan ran on a format that should not have worked ”“ an hour of just music with no anchor, no host, no competition, no scores or jury. The only way for the audience to engage with the show was through the music. But the show’s popularity took even the producers by surprise. Now in its fourth season, Coke Studio Pakistan’s Facebook page has racked up over 725,000 fans, each YouTube video has an average of 100,000 views (with Zeb & Haniya’s ”˜Bibi Sanam’ registering 1.5 million hits) and an equal number of public forums dedicated to passionate debate and dissection of each episode.

So when it was announced that Coke Studio was coming to India, it was clear that the show had some pretty huge shoes to fill. But the primary reason behind bringing the show to India was to showcase music outside of Bollywood, says Aditya Swamy, MTV India Channel Head. “There’s so much music in India. It’s just that we became so uni-dimensional when it came to Bollywood that when it came to music, it seemed like there’s only this and nothing else. India’s alternative music scene is thriving but is it thriving on a national platform?” But given the diversity of music in India, the show would have seemed an obvious choice for the country. Why did it take so long for the show to cross the border over into India? “The time just seemed right and everything fell in place,” shrugs Swamy.

Coke Studio was brought to India by MTV ”“ Coke [email protected] is the show’s complete name – in association with Shah Rukh Khan’s TV and movie production house Red Chillies Entertainment and helmed by music director and Colonial Cousin Leslie Lewis. The show’s presence on MTV is momentous for the channel for a number of reasons. Over the last few years, MTV’s focus had steadily moved away from music to reality television, with hugely popular shows like Roadies and Splitsvilla bringing in the TRPs. Coke Studio marks the channel’s return to music, and Indian music at that, beyond the confines of Bollywood. But Swamy says the shift has been anything but sudden. “When you’re a youth brand it’s also about constantly evolving. You’ve got to keep moving one step ahead of what your audience wants. We did a lot of things with music but it never got noticed on a bigger scale, I think.” MTV has hosted various music-related shows like Rock On, the MTV Rockathon and the Ultimate DJ Championships but most of it slipped under the radar, thanks to their reality programming, believes Swamy. “We play nine hours of music and nine hours of non-music but I don’t think anybody realises that, because the music’s become a blind spot. So we said if we want to do this, we’ll have to do something drastic to make people believe.”

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Swamy says a number of musicians and composers were considered for the role of music director but they settled on Lewis considering his roots in fusion in his own music, as a renowned producer with artists like KK and Suneeta Rao and his work with Colonial Cousins. “We went to AR Rahman, Amit Trivedi, we went to Leslie and I think really the reason why we zoomed in on Leslie is one, he’s a trained Indian and Western classical musician and he gets both sides of the spectrum. Two, I think he always had a hunger to do something different; right from his first remix he’s had a different sound.”

Going into the show, Lewis says his idea was to take it pan-India in such a way that everyone found something to relate to in the music, keeping the roots but giving it a contemporary spin. “Whatever I created was about trying to get the vibe that Coke and MTV had in creating this new music ”“ we don’t lose our culture, we can keep our culture preserved, and also make something contemporary, something that is forward moving. It could be tomorrow’s music.” “We wanted a platform where you put the best musicians together and tell them, ”˜You can do what you want, but there’s one rule ”“ you can’t be in your comfort zone,” adds Swamy.

To this end, Lewis brought together singers from the Bollywood fraternity as well as folk musicians and independent artists. The list of playback singers include Shaan, Shankar Mahadevan, Kailash Kher, KK, Sunidhi Chauhan, Mathangi Rajshekhar and Shruti Pathak paired with musicians like qawwali stalwarts the Sabri brothers, Bihu singer Khagen Gogoi, Tamil folk singer Chinnaponnu, Carnatic vocalist Bombay Jayashri, Sufi singers the Wadali brothers, Assamese folk-fusion artist Angraag “Papon” Mahanta, and Gujarati folk artist Praful Dave. Interestingly, representation from the Indian indie music scene was limited to Raghu Dixit, Advaita and Sanjeev Thomas. Lewis says, “MTV and Red Chillies had more or less zoomed in on the so-called Bollywood singers, so the big names were already in place, more or less. So when I came in I’d pretty much brought in all the folk singers and all the untapped talent.” Having worked with almost all the artists at some point, Lewis says he, “kept all these people in mind, noticed them and said one day I must find the right space to use them and it couldn’t have been more right than this.”

The music for the show was written and arranged entirely by Lewis. “I’ve done the most musical things any musician could do. I’ve composed, I’ve played guitar, I’ve sung, I’ve produced, I’ve arranged, I’ve remixed”¦ So, I feel the whole conceptualisation and creation of music has pretty much been in my head, all brought together by the musicians and everybody’s love and passion.” But Lewis believes he’s done more than just bringing the music to the people, he’s also broken musical conventions of television today. “What I’ve also ended up doing is starting the seven-eight minute format. If you look at most music today ”“ commercial music is not more than three minutes/three and a half minutes, radio edit is two minutes. But no song on Coke Studio is under seven minutes. So, what does that mean? It means that the music is engaging enough to keep you there.”

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The show opened on June 17 to mixed reviews. Criticism has ranged from lack of chemistry in some of the collaborations to the fact that it has been hijacked by Bollywood, considering that every episode features at least one playback singer from Hindi films. It was only expected that some of the pairings would have worked better than the others, considering that the musicians come from vastly different musical backgrounds and work in different languages in diverse parts of the country. Fusion, at the best of times, is among the more difficult music to create, and for MTV it would always have been a challenge to achieve the perfect collaboration between, say, the Hindi singer Kailash Kher and Tamil folk artist Chinnaponnu, who don’t speak each other’s language. But the duo did produce a foot-tapping, synergistic, sufiyana rendition of Tamil street-folk song ”˜Vethalai’. The artists themselves seem to be happy with the results. Says Mathangi Rajshekhar, the classically-trained South Indian playback singer who combined with Sufi musician and upcoming Bollywood singer Tochi Raina to render a Carnatic version of the Punjabi folk song ”˜Yaar Basainda,’ “ It’s amazing the kind of response I got for my piece especially from East India. I was quite overwhelmed.”

Lewis defends the Bollywood element in the collaborations quite vehemently. “A Bollywood singer doesn’t make it Bollywood. Are you saying that Shankar or Sunidhi can’t sing anything but Bollywood? I think that’s an unfair branding the audience looks at but, I think we’re going to have to live with it.” Adds Swamy, “People may have come to the show because of Shaan or KK but what they remember and take away are the new names, Harshadeep and Tochi Raina, who are all new singers. If we’d been like Coke [email protected] featuring Tochi and Mathangi, people would have been like, ”˜who?’ But the idea was to broadbase it. Let’s make a show for mass India and not a niche show because the niche people already know the alternative music scene.”

Lewis believes that Coke [email protected] heralds a new era for music in India. “I was at the forefront of the Hindi pop scene, when I first did ”˜Pari Hoon Mai,’ to KK’s ”˜Yaaron Dosti,’ ”˜Pal,’ to ”˜Jaanam Samjha Karo’ ”“ all this stuff became Hindi pop, a big genre by itself but I was at the frontier of that sound and then when I did fusion with the Colonial Cousins again I was at the frontier of a new sound which I brought in,” he says earnestly. “Again I’m on a new frontier; I can see it, I can smell it. I know it’s definitely going to change the scene in the country, just because it’s pure music and I’m not hearing it anywhere else in the country. Now you will find lots of other people starting to do stuff like this, and that’s great.”

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