Coke Studio: musical tradition rediscovered

Published: July 11, 2010

A picture of Tina Sani featured on the Coke Studio website. PHOTO: KOHI MARRI

Two Words: Coke Studio

They move us, inspire us, take us back to our roots, and entertain us. Inculcate pride of our culture and heritage. Allows different musical traditions to come together and create magic.

In my research on history, particularly pertaining to the influences and traditions of the Muslim Empires extending from the Prophet’s (PBUH) time until the Mughal Empire, I could not help but marvel at the close parallels between the “traditions” of Coke Studio and 8th Century Muslim Andalusia (Southern Spain), the Ottoman Empire of Turkey and later the Mughal Empire of the Subcontinent.

Historical traditions quote that Spain was conquered in 711 by Tariq bin Ziyad (hence the name Gibraltar – Jabal al Tariq of a mountain in Southern Spain). During that time, art, science and culture flourished in that area under the Muslim caliphate. The region had a huge population of Jews and Christians who were eminent scholars of that time. Instead of being shunned and persecuted, they were given a special status in the society and were taxed (as in the later Islamic Empires – Jizya) to protect their rights and freedom. Under this, a new tradition blossomed.

The traditional music of Al-Andalus was jealously guarded by the natives. It is here that the ‘ud (lute) was invented which was the predecessor of the instrument we enjoy the most – the guitar!

Muslims, Jews and Christians used to come together, bring in their own musical influences to create wonderful pieces of art. A Muslim connoisseur is credited with the perfection of the lute, introducing the “Do Re Me” notes, asserting the need for different clothes for different seasons and the most important of all, three course meals. His name was Ziryab from Baghdad.

Putting that aside, the music tradition that took birth there was extraordinary. It retained the classical Spanish Flamenco roots which were based on rhythmic claps, banging on percussions and an elaborate plucking of the lute (‘ud). However, it also accepted the Berber and Arab influences that came in from the Muslim world. The Sufi mystics also found the perfect opportunity for devotional expression and resorted to these creative means.

This video is from a Spanish movie “Vengo” shows a (contemporary) look at this tradition.

Then rose the Ottoman Empire from the ashes of Muslim Iberia after the Spanish inquisition. Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) became the culture and coffee capital of the world. Trading started with the rest of Europe in coffee. However, the Sufi traditions of the whirling dervishes under the teachings of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi took music to the next level. The ecstatic dance rituals and the devotional music of which every note, every moment “meant” something, carried special weight. Although the Dervishes were often criticized by the clerics, they maintained their “Welcome to All” approach to faith. The instruments from Western Europe including variants of the Violin and the Flute (ney) were used in their music. Alas, the Ottoman Empire fell and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk reduced the Sufi rituals to a mere “cultural spectacle”.

While the Ottoman Empire had an increasing influence in the Middle East and Europe, the Mughal Empire rose in the Subcontinent and brought Muslims in power who were a minority in the region (particularly towards India). The Kings faced a difficult situation since their traditions were at odds with those of the Hindus. However, the Sufi traditions from Baba Bulleh Shah, Sachal Sarmast, Abdullah Shah Ghazi, Baba Farid Shakar Ganj and many more served as a bridge between both cultures.

The genre of Qawwalis as the “Muslim” devotional music was born where the devotional poetry praising God and the Prophet (PBUH) allowed the Muslims to retain their religious thinking and integrate in the culture. The sitar, harmonium, tabla, veena, iktara and rubab were fundamentally used. Each instrument was native to a particular region and was used in accordance with the content of the song. Oftentimes, the Hindus used to be one of the instrument players in the Royal courts of Akbar and Shah Jehan reciting ecstatic poetry of the Sufi saints. The famous Tan Sen converted to Islam after being mentored by one of the greatest Sufi mystics, Shaikh Mohammad Ghaus in Fatehpur Sikri.

And now, the tradition of Coke Studio is born. Where Pakistani classical meets modern, raag meets rock and sufi meets modern.

It allows us, the youth to connect with the likings of our parents and grandparents.

Aren’t we suddenly proud of our own music?

Sufi music has a new meaning. It is suddenly approachable to the youth who have been labeled as “barren on spirituality and thought.”

Although I have been very close to these Sufi traditions after rediscovering it all during a research for a presentation two years ago, I am glad that I can connect with my friends on this level. My family has had a beautiful tradition of seeking guidance from these Sufi mentors; I had never known what it all actually meant until I rediscovered it myself.

And when it comes to harmony; we can see how the “rockers” are playing the guitar with such pleasure while Tina Sani recites a Sufi kalaam while a Christian drummer lends his skill to the entire composition. I would like to call this nothing short of magical.

Don’t we just wish that our country was run this way?


Suhaib Jalis Ahmed

A marketing professional based in Karachi with a fiery passion for food, coffee and a keen interest in history and Sufi poetry. He tweets as @suhaibjalis (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • XARI

    coke studio is nothing to do with anything the wroter has quoted. i also dont understand the significance of there being a CHRISTIAN drummer in the house band.


  • Jahanzaib Haque

    @Xari my interview with Rohail. Pertinent section below:

    Rohail: “The idea is to go back to our roots. Our heritage goes back thousands of years, but when you ask people about our culture, for some it stops at 1947; for some the goras destroyed it; for others there was no culture before the Muslim invasion. Actually, we come from a place where music was a language before the spoken word came into being and there is a hint of this in Coke Studio, and the public is taking to it.”

    Additionally, Rohail and I had a long discussion on what he meant by our roots which got cut for space; his view and the author’s are near identical, down to identifying coke studio with the ottoman empire in particular.


  • Jahanzaib Haque

    @Xari whether Rohail has been successful in translating that vision into his production is a different matter entirely however.


  • Dr Omar Farooq Khan

    I couldn’t agree more with the author’s opinion on the subject.

    Yes in the ancient world, Muslims excelled in music along with other disciplines simply because they were open to all kinds of knowledge and they were constantly gaining knowledge, learning as well as teaching others.

    Mutual respect, sharing knowledge and practicing tolerance was the key to their success. Thus all kinds of musical innovations were practiced and different genres of music came out from such fusions.

    It is definately an amazing feat to see Coke studios practicing the same spirit of tolerance, mutual respect and encouraging innovative inputs.

    Thus it can serve as shinning example of unity via music , showing that good music is not limited by caste, creed , religion, genre or nationality & is indeed a major factor for highlighting the message of peace and brotherhood.

    Dr Omar Farooq Khan Recommend

  • Obaid

    Please for the love of God dont call everything Sufi just to give something respect. Recommend

  • Kiran

    @Xari, I think that the Christian drummer part is trying to link it to the Hindo tabla and sitar players playing side by side with the Muslim Qawwali singers in the royal courts of Akbar and Shah Jehan.

    @Dr Omar, AGREED!Recommend

  • XARI

    actually i see nothing eastern in rohails coke studio music. it is more inspired by western trends of rythym and blues, funk and groove, jazz, and blues. the only thing eastern is the fusion of eastern vocals. the music is completely western.
    @Jahanzeb: I agree where you say that ppl dont think “our” history is anywhere before either 1947 or the muslim invasion. I take our history to be starting from the Buddhist and Hindu empires, bcs thats where we came from, like it or not.

    @Obaid: yes plEASE stop making everything into SUFI.Recommend

  • SadafFayyaz

    @Xari and Obaid::;You seem anti- Coke studio too much? why? CS has a vision and Rohail, and Umber have translated that vision quite nicely….is there any other music thing in Pak that you can talk very proudly about? I have heard about gender and ethnic discrimination but this time “Music discrimination” too……not even Pa and Ma, but all the production team is doing a grt job…..I am asked by some C-rated singers to write against Coke Studio;;;why? Because they were never given a chance to perform there….I have 100s of Indian friends who are grt fans of CS….Do they discriminate?Recommend

  • XARI

    I dont think i have said anything close to saying that Coke Studio is not liked by me. I have only specified that it is misunderstood by many as “eastern music” whereas, it actually constitutes elements of western music which i have named above in my earlier post. I like Coke Studio, but not BCS it is coke studio.
    I think there are several artistes besides zeb/haniya (who i really like), Noori (who are also quite good), etc etc. I think more of these ordinary artists should be tapped into rather than immedietaly discovering new singers. For instance Sindhi, Balochi and Pushto music have excellent dynamics and are very progressive musical expressions. Unfortunately Punjabi folk is the only popular form of folk in pakistan. its very good, undoubtedly, but there ARE other things and other singers to listen to too.Recommend

  • XARI

    and definitely, i am not writing against coke studio, if you see the sequence of remarks from top to bottom, you will notice what i have written is far beyond the aspect of LIke or Dislike. I dont like ALL the songs of CS either. Its not the sole benchmark of pakistani music for me.Recommend

  • SadafFayyaz

    Now this seems analytical and very logical :))”For instance Sindhi, Balochi and Pushto music have excellent dynamics and are very progressive musical expressions.”…..Recommend

  • Naeem Akhtar

    @Xari, thanks for such an en-lighting comment. I never knew Zeb and Haniya were Punjabi.

    I really don;t know when our people will come out of the so called Quota system. Yes I accept all languages have rich music, but one single coke studio can not encircle them all. Moreover Punjabi is very close to urdu which makes it a safe financial bet for any show. But Please don;t make it a racial / provincial discrimination. Don’t you think we already have so many others stupid issues of Discrimination. Please at least do not discriminate Music.

    To be honest others don;t discriminate you its we and our complexes which make us feel discriminated in everything.Recommend

  • XARI

    mr akhtar,

    it becomes very difficult to explain your point of view to those who wish not to understand it. but once Again, here i go:
    1) i never said zeb and haniya were punjabi, also it does not matter to me if they are, however the point seems to be of much interest to you.
    2)disagreeing with anyones opinion of music does not mean i am discriminating.
    3) the point abt punjabi music being more popular is an observation, not a racist remark.
    4) your saying that bcs punjabi and urdu are safe financial bets therefore other languages cannot be regularly included is tghe worst case of discrimination itself. music is language-less. we should get out of the quota system, remember???Recommend

  • Naeem Akhtar


    Well I agree that you did not say Zeb and Haniya were Punjabi, I was just providing the argument that you said in the comment above that Coke studio is not bringing in Pushto Sindhi and Balochi Musicians. So I mentioned that we have seen Pashto, saraiki and sindhi singers as well in Coke studio. So your argument of not having those types of musics becomes Null.

    I also mentioned that it makes a safe financial bet since majority people understands urdu and can understand punjabi easily its NOT AT ALL about Quota its just plain financial planning by a company. No one in this world can work for charity. They have to make safe financial bets to earn money.

    I respect your dis agreement with Coke Studio, that is your right to disagree. But Please don’t say that Coke Studio is intentionally discriminating.Recommend

  • xari

    as a listener, i am not interested in the coke studio’s financial accounts. if i am supposed to start worrying about their finances then i am not going to be a listener. You have misquoted and misunderstood me twice, so this is the last time i write a reply. Its also your thinking that the majority of ppl understand punjabi or urdu. thats also incorrect. its also incorrect to say that CS has brought forward many many sindhi balochi and pushto musicians. i dont even see what the entire problem is in everyone suddenly becoming all personal if i dislike certain aspects of the show. Its not exactly a Saviour of the pakistani image, you know. Recommend

  • Shiva

    Music has no religion, no roots you mention. Sufi is the greatest truth about god and the creator being one with us… ” ranjha ranjha …” remember??

    This is not to feel proud about your roots. This is to discover the true roots of mankind, to stop us from destruction and spread the message of love.

    I am sorry your article does not convey this message :)Recommend