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Coke Studio 15 is ensuring that Xulfi’s legacy will be all about remarkable new talent


I have always argued and stood by the fact that to subvert or change any tradition you must be if not rooted in one then at least attached to it. Kaavish exemplifies this notion superbly, illustrating how individuals raised under the umbrella of tradition can use their accumulated experiences to reflect something that transcends mere nostalgia or curated collections. Despite the rigour and excitement of Pakistan’s indie scene in the streaming age, it grapples with a familiar identity crisis. There’s a wealth of stories and cultural references to draw upon, but the absence of a solid anchor often results in music that remains superficially catchy, lacking the depth necessary to resonate deeply with audiences.

The concept of music you can ‘vibe’ with has become central to our experience, especially among younger listeners. When I asked a Gen Z enthusiast, they described it as the kind of music you’d want to ‘hang out with.’ However, true resonance with an audience goes beyond just setting a vibe; it requires creating music that speaks directly to the heart and lasts beyond a moment or moments of repeated listening (Pasoori fans can feel attacked).

When the clock struck 2

Last Sunday, at 2AM, Coke Studio 14 and 15 transitioned from a vibe to something the audiences would like to place on a shelf of personal reflections. Star Shah and Zeeshan Ali are perhaps two of the most talented individuals to have graced Coke Studio in the last couple of years. They are so deeply rooted in tradition that the soul of this one song can outshine the so-called ‘gehrayi’ and pretentious Sufi motifs of the entire last season in the blink of an eye.

2AM doesn’t attempt to overcomplicate things. Instead, it embraces simplicity, much like the unhurried conversations one might have at that hour—unless, of course, you find yourself at a posh dhaba in DHA Karachi. Much like the brilliant visual landscape crafted by director Awais Gohar and the art team that includes Sumaiyya Saeed, Lujane Pagganwala, Ather Amna & Waqas Ahmed, 2AM transports listeners to the contemplative moments one might experience in a city rooted in its soil, like Androon Lahore or Qisa Khwani Bazaar in Peshawar.

It’s a song imbued with honesty, devoid of any ulterior aesthetic or ideological point-scoring. Instead, it invites listeners to ponder the authenticity of love and dream of a world where love reigns supreme. I also hope that references to Laila Majnu and an earnest longing for ‘true love’ don’t lead CS to go full Tu Jhoom and release videos of Star Shah and Zeeshan Ali touching each other’s feet out of veneration and giving monologues about the richness of love and longing. That’s so 2022 and that clearly doesn’t help a song that in itself is nothing short of a musical mammoth.

Keeping it simple

In his social media posts, Star Shah fondly talks about how he is a pitch-perfect rapper, a trope missing from the contemporary rap scene. You have melodic loops and alaaps being interjected between adlibs and rap verses, what you don’t have is someone who seems to have been born within the richness of Kaafi and tappay but has chosen hip hop as his mode of channeling all that he has processed from those Kaafis and tappay. Check out a short performance on Star Shah’s Instagram about a touch phone and how it helped him connect to his father who is no longer with him, and you’ll realise how someone as uniquely positioned and skilled as Star Shah was a prophecy waiting to happen.

On the other hand, Zeeshan Ali is by far the best vocalist in the contemporary Pakistani music scene. We have seen the magic he can conjure up with covers and original ghazals and the ease with which his voice lifts a jazz-rock track such as Saanval by Surkhwaab. Although very much a discovery of Xulfi via Nescafe Basement, Zeeshan’s rise to fame and recognition can only be attributed to his vocal prowess and how he has made a name for himself in the ghazal and geet realm as someone who can render pristine Urdu verses as effortlessly as the sweetness of folk Punjabi elocution.

The future belongs to poets

Ali was someone who didn’t need a platform like CS but has now added the much-needed vocal capability, range of idioms, allegories, and most importantly, swag to what was so far a hit show with catchy songs under the tutelage of Xulfi. The reason Star Shah and Zeeshan Ali’s combo works out so well is that Ali primarily stretches those high notes that complement the softness of Shah’s landings like warm butter on toast. ‘Song narrative’ is a thing this season, like ‘music directors’ were under Strings. I’m not sure what it means here, but if it remotely has anything to do with conveying emotions with certainty and surety, then Xulfi and the million people rightly credited deserve all the appreciation.

A fellow journalist and friend once said that Faris Shafi is a significant poet of the contemporary era. That reminded me of how once I told an Urdu conference organiser that the only way to ignite youth’s interest in the Urdu language is to invite rappers to language festivals. Of course, they laughed it off, but soon it will become a professional necessity or a necessary evil from a puritanical point of view. Kudos to Xulfi for realising how the future belongs not just to singers and musicians but to poets who can write and render their verses in a melodic continuity that neither sounds like rap, nor Tehtul Lafz or Tarranum, but something of a unique spoken word that travels like music. Zeeshan Ali and Star Shah together have cracked a code that very few are talented enough to replicate!

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