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.
Coke Studio's Facebook page currently has more than 400,000 fans. "Last, year, one of Coke Studio's most popular songs had the chorus 'Bas kareen o yaar' ('Enough my friend'). Several friends made it their status message," says Suhaib Jalis Ahmed, a 22-year-old business student. "They dwelt on it for weeks, looking for inspiration." A few months ago, Ahmed wrote a blog post for Pakistan's Express Tribune newspaper comparing Coke Studio to the progressive Muslim Caliphate in eighth century Spain.
If YouTube comments are any indication, Coke Studio's viewers live in places as far-flung as Taiwan, Utah, the Netherlands, India, and New Zealand. The show has become especially popular in Europe, a continent that is home to one of the largest populations of Pakistani expats. "The Diaspora feels the demonization of Pakistan even more acutely than those of us who live inside the country," says cultural critic Fasi Zaka. "For them, finding something like this on the Internet means that that they can show it the rest of the world."