Pakistani Pop Music Takes on the Taliban

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Image credit: Kohi Marri

For a few days this past summer, a Pakistani music show called Coke Studio became the 11th most watched channel on Youtube. Around the same time, it also became one of the most Googled terms in Europe.

The show, which is similar to the British music series Live from Abbey Road, has been growing in popularity since 2009. This summer's spike came in part because of "Alif Allah Chambey Di Booty," a Punjabi song performed by a squat, aging Pakistani folk musician with a curling mustache. At last count, it had received close to 3 million hits on YouTube.

It's not hard to understand the song's appeal. The folk musician is accompanied by a female singer in a cropped leather jacket, tight jeans, and siren-red lipstick. Traditional instruments like the two-pronged chimta compete with the guitar and the synthesizer. It's a faultless fusion of the new and the old, a rare image for Pakistanis used to seeing their country portrayed as fundamentalist and monolithic. Consider this comment by a YouTube user: "This is the soul of Pakistan.....this is me."

Such responses reflect Coke Studio's essential philosophy. Producer Rohail Hyatt says the idea for the show coalesced when he was working as a consultant for Coca-Cola four years ago. Initially, Coke, which has long played second fiddle to Pepsi in Pakistan, rejected the idea. "It was certainly a challenge to convince them that the concept would have mass appeal," Hyatt says. Eventually, though, the corporation agreed.

When the show first aired on Pakistani television in the summer of 2008, it received a lukewarm response. At the time, violence related to growing Islamic militancy was limited to the distant North-West Frontier Province and Balochistan. The rest of the country was yet to feel the wrath of the Taliban. 

But by the show's second season, the Taliban had begun to attack cities like Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad. Simultaneously, the global spotlight on Pakistan intensified. Pakistanis found themselves under increasing scrutiny as linchpins in the war against Islamic terrorism. "We wanted the show to be a process of self-discovery, of finding a new way of looking at ourselves," says Hyatt. "We receive so much negative press that it's easy to forget who we really are."

Under Hyatt's direction, Coke Studio's music began to take on a spiritual (though not necessarily religious) character, featuring collaborations between shrine singers and rock bands. Its playlist also began exploring the country's many linguistic, cultural, and specifically non-Islamcentric facets--showcasing, for instance, a pair of Pashto-speaking, guitar-playing sisters singing a love song in Turkish as well as a classical musician singing an old Indian desert folk song.

Suddenly, the show's popularity skyrocketed. Its website crashed repeatedly, unable to handle the unexpected onslaught of traffic.

Since its inception, Coke Studio has displayed unusual Internet-savvy: The only way to access each season's songs is by downloading them through the show's website. (The producers don't release albums.) Videos are uploaded on Facebook and YouTube as soon as an episode airs, and Hyatt believes deeply in the free distribution of music.

All of this has dovetailed with the growing Pakistani movement toward online activism. Pakistan's Internet-using population has grown exponentially over the past few years; it's now estimated to be 20 million strong. In 2007, when President Pervez Musharraf sacked Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, Pakistanis used the still fledgling Twitter to organize protest rallies. In March 2009, social networking site Facebook was vital in bringing together the lawyers' march that helped reinstate the country's dismissed judges.

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Riddhi Shah is a freelance journalist based out of New York. She has written for Salon, Saveur, and The Boston Globe.

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