How I ended up on Coke Studio

Published: July 7, 2011

Bilal Khan in Coke Studio. PHOTO: RIZWANUL HAQ

Bilal Khan in Coke Studio. PHOTO: RIZWANUL HAQ

4:00am: Sheraton Hotel, Karachi.

I walked out of the hotel lobby with my guitar case and suitcase in hand. I was thinking about the past and an image (comic above) came to mind.

In 2008, I was a moody, disillusioned LUMS student who was spending an unhealthy amount of time indoors mostly penning comics and writing song lyrics just as moody and disillusioned as me.

Now I was in a hotel bus going towards the airport where I’d catch a flight back to Lahore. I stare out at the dark, empty Karachi roads barely registering the sounds emanating from my headphones.

I have a secret that only my mother and best friend know – I’m going to be on Coke Studio this season and I spent the last night jamming for six hours with arguably the best band in Pakistan on songs I penned – in my bedroom. I cannot tell this to anyone. At least not for now.

Unexpectedly, my eyes teared up. How uncanny it is that only a few years ago I had penned, in the form of the above comic, an innate desire to break free from the typical, cookie cutter mould of academia and live out a childish fantasy of the musician cum rockstar.

When I drew the comic, the musician in me was like a fly in the room: alive but insignificant. Something I was barely aware of.

The day I got the call from Coke Studio’s people I sat down and thought. And then I thought, and thought and thought even harder.

How was I going to approach this?

It’s a scary thing to know that you’ve been given this terrific opportunity to start shaping your dream, your destiny. And now the onus is on you to take this thing you’ve been given and do something great with it… or totally screw it up.

But I figured – to go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s. And so, just like when Alice discovered labels on those cakes and bottles in Wonderland, my brain said to me in the imperative to just “do this.”

So, I began planning.

Would I add an extra bridge section?

Should I ask for a sitar piece to be added in?

What about a sufi kalaam? Those seem to be uber-famous.

Do I want a mega-hit or am I going to do this for the sake of art?

And then, there were the mixed opinions! Some thought that only collaborations on Coke Studio fared the best. Others thought the reverse to be true. I would have lost myself in the din of all the sounds and suggestions had I not quickly checked myself mentally and made a commitment to move beyond questions and simply play my songs the way I know them.

With great YouTube hits come great responsibility. And my responsibility was (and is) to keep writing stuff people not only dig musically but can also relate to. I was going off the proverbial precipice from saying ‘listen’ to ‘Listen to me’… And I straight up planned on having a great time.

When books on Pakistan’s history are drafted a hundred years from now, it is quite possible that Coke Studio will go down as a cultural milestone – a game changer that culturally, socially and maybe even politically redefined our nation.

How would this tentative section in this tentative history book read?

It might say something like:

“A country, while travelling through one of its darkest periods, had a show that emerged to give hope in the most uncertain of times.”

Coke Studio’s mini-experiment tests whether we are worthy and able of adhering to Jinnah’s philosophy of unity, faith and discipline.

Pakistani musicians in unity, with a faith in the institution of music, all under the discipline of Pakistan’s greatest house band and maestro, Rohail Hyatt, equals a mighty successful endeavour.

I have had a lot of people tell me that the music I performed for Coke Studio was too sad. I don’t see a problem in that. But my lyrics, they are a reflection of what I see around me.

There is a sadness and hopelessness that can sometimes permeate our individual existences and our country. Everyone is fighting a personal battle with their own circumstances. But we are all operating on hope, for better things and better days. And really, that’s what I’m trying to get across to you, my listeners.

Keep an eye out for Bilal Khan’s debut album “Umeed” this summer.

Bilal Khan

Bilal Khan

A singer who graduated from LUMS. He can be followed on Twitter at @bilalkhan and on Facebook at

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

  • Hiba

    What an interesting story. I absolutely love the little comic drawing- it reflected your story. Your story is no doubt an inspiring one. I like how you talked about your optimistic and individualistic approach towards you future goals/ big events. Your concluding paragraph is really amazing- very well said! Thank you for sharing this with us. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Recommend

  • Bareera

    “dream on” by Aerosmith. Period.
    loved “lamha”. thumbs up.Recommend

  • muniba

    i quite love your voice, and I think the reason why so many people fell in love with ‘toh kya hua’ is because of the hope it talks about despite being a sad number. Personally, I can relate a lot to the song and find your voice quite heart warming:)Recommend

  • Zain Gilani

    That was heart touching ! Appreciated ! Way to go Bilal ! Just love your music .. Keep up the good work. May you have all the success in life =) Recommend

  • Saad

    Way to go B. Khan

    Love your music !Recommend

  • Sana

    I don’t know if u remember,but a few years back u were promoting your song Jaan Jaye on Orkut, and u asked me to lisn to it and tell u wht i thought..even though i had no idea who u were and also tht i was not related to music industry. But u wanted to know opinions of what common people perceived about ur music, which is a very humble act. And honestly speaking from tht day onwards that song has been stuck to my head, and also in my ipod and my laptop. :)
    I was not at all surprised to catch u on Coke Studio cuz i knew one day u’ll make it through…and u did..!! I am proud of u and proud knowing that u r a humble human being who cares what other people think..!!
    Best of luck for the upcoming album and for other future endeavors..!!! :) Recommend

  • maria

    love your music bilal bhai. may GOD bless you. AMEENRecommend

  • Muhammad Umer Asif

    To kiya hoa is quite enchanting….it has an soothing effect in it…i just really loved it…i am grateful to Rohail Hayat who has unveiled a great talent in our country….your voice is so refreshing & compilation of music is excellent…looking forward to see you a super star…finger crossed !!!Recommend

  • Ammar Aziz

    When books on Pakistan’s history are drafted a hundred years from now, it is quite possible that Coke Studio will go down as a cultural milestone – a game changer that culturally, socially and maybe even politically redefined our nation.

    This sounds funny. Aren’t you expecting a LOT from a Corporate Studio? Coke studio as a cultural milestone? something that would create social and political change? huh.
    Where have you been all your life?
    Do you know how many classically trained musicians are starving in our country? Do you how many folk singers aren’t able to hit the mainstream media because they’re considered cheap, low-class artists until they become a part of this Corporate Studio?!

    Get realistic. Your lovey dovey songs are only able to attract the young girls NOT the masses. Coke studio is all about making profits for a multinational company. Its anything but ‘hope’ for for the country.Recommend

  • Syed Qalb-e-Abbas

    @ Ammar Aziz, the way Bilal Khan has put it, i perfectly agree with him … there are people for which coke studio is a ‘hope’ … its sad you are not amoung them… before Coke Stuido’s season one we only had bits of good music coming through Pakistani music scene, it had been a drought of good music since the days of Junoon and Vital Signs and the great NFAK except for few good songs.. atleast some of the exceptionally talented folk artists make to the coke studio.. and even if its profit go to Coke, who cares !! dont we all drink liters of soft drinks every day ?Recommend

  • Abu Bakr

    Ignore the haters and follow your dreams Bilal. Recommend

  • tk

    To be very honest, i liked your music and you seemed like a normal cool guy. But after coke your emo facebook statuses have made you like every other emo artist. Please stop them, i don’t want to unlike your fb pageRecommend

  • Habiba Younis

    loved your performance on coke studio, keep up the good work!!Recommend

  • Fooz

    yea im a fan.. hope to buy ur album sometime soonRecommend

  • Said Chaudhry

    @Ammar Aziz: Everything is yellow to the jaundiced eye.Recommend

  • Ammar bin rahim

    Loved the part where u said that when history of pakistan will b written a hundred years from now the coke studios will definately be a part of it.. Personally speaking i was quite down and out a couple of months and had given up hope.. But somehow this coke studio rejuvinated the nationhood in me ,told me that we pakistanis r the best n that yes we are all Pakistani n we are a nation destined for greatness, marely passing through a rough patch on our history, that is I.A going to spoken about for centuries to come;in a positive way…:)Recommend

  • anybody’s fool

    Very few people are lucky like that, you wanted to stand out and be exceptional, you wanted to make the world hear you and you had enough spirit to go on till the end… not every one has that kind of determination. Its kinda sad that there are so many amazing artists/musicians out there that dont have the guts or the confidence to step out and do their own thing.
    people keep telling me to do something with my art and go to fine arts or something, i could never relate to anything before, and this is the first article in this whole site that made me feel like it was exactly what i felt.
    i mean i draw comics most of the time too, bored to death, and even though people love them, there always a void somewhere in all that.

    Im glad you decided to break through, i occasionally hear one or two songs(only heard bachana and to kia hua) , and find deeper meaning, you still have a long way to go, i still see you as that ordinary guy who wanted me to hear his songs.

    keep up the good work. the comic is adorable.

    good luck for the album buddy, you represent every person who never got to live his dream.

    hara nahi hoon main….


  • Hasan Sheikh

    Best of luck bro.Recommend

  • Saher

    I listen ur songs 1st tym…. its really tremendouse n fablouse….. :)Recommend

  • Frank

    Bilal, Your music and your singing are wonderful but your lyrics are really very ordinary indeed. How about something by Baba Shah Hussain next time? :)Recommend

  • Frank

    ..and oh keep it up and best of luck. I think you are going to something really big one day. .Recommend

  • Zoya

    This is an amazing piece of writing. I remember falling in love with your voice the first time i heard ‘bachana’. Your performances on Coke studio were remarkable! Hoping to see more experimental stuff from your side in the future :)Recommend

  • wellguy

    well…it was nothing out of the ordinary..Recommend

  • TheLowBlow

    So how DID you end up on Coke studio?

    Seriously. I’ve heard your songs. How?Recommend

  • Omar

    No offense bro, but your coke studio gig was a bit of a let down. Let the vocal range explore, NAY, push it’s boundaries ;) Recommend

  • Adeel

    Bilal, I simply love (& believe) following quote: –

    “A country, while travelling through one of its darkest periods, had a show that emerged to give hope in the most uncertain of times.”

    Your voice is wonderful. Keep up producing good music.Recommend

  • Invader

    Not a really big fan of Pakistani music but Bilal your singing and music style is quite different something which can kick life in our music industry.Good luck to you Recommend

  • Mahnur

    Who is your best friend? :)Recommend

  • Chris

    another wannabe, corporate sell out! Recommend

  • Umme Kulsoom

    No words! Incredible :) I am a true believer in destiny of my dreams and if the desire is strong enough its the faith that takes you up there! Recommend

  • Yasir Khan

    Like Nehru one said “A dream is not what you see while sleeping, dream is what does not let you sleep”… well crafted success story, reminded me of myself actually :)Recommend

  • Sabahat Zakariya

    Nice piece Bilal and Tau Kya hua is catchy Recommend

  • Syeda Fatima

    it happens to me sumtimes ur mind is telling u one thing and everybody else is saying sumthing different and there comes a point when u jst want to quit………..ur stry is very inspiring…….believing in urself is very imp Recommend

  • rubab

    First time i listen ur song of Coke studio “Tou Kay Howa” & i like it very much !Recommend

  • aliya

    @Ammar Aziz:
    there are a lot of things that can bring about a change in a society…coke studio is one of ’em!!!to be given something through which an individual can prove his/her talent is definitely unique…something i haven’t seen in pakistan in ages actually…something that really proves successful!!people got to know this revolutionary music of bilal khan after nazia hassan and vital signs though they are not here anymore but their music lives on through us but bilal khan is!!!!!it is time for us to appreciate those who are given this chance then fret over those who are not.get rid of pessimistic thoughts!!bilal khans every song is out of this world and pleaseeee do NOT compare his music with justin bieber and taylor swift,the target audience for their music is young girls!!not bilal khans!Recommend

  • aliya

    @Ammar Aziz:
    there are things that can bring about some changes in a society in a positive way…coke studio is one of them!something that gives a chance to an individual to prove his/her talent is definitely unique!this kind of opportunity is given at coke studio!!something i havent seen in pakistan in ages actually but now…something that proves successful!!!!!after vital signs’ and nazia hassans music people got to know bilal khans revolutionary music…even though they are not here anymore their music lives on through us but bilal khan is!!come on its time for us to really appreciate those who are given a chance than fret over those who are not….try to get rid of pessimistic thoughts!!bilal khans each song is out of this world…i feel spiritually elated after listening to his songs!and please do NOT compare his music with justin bieber and taylor swift…target audience for their music is young girls not bilal khans!!!keep on bringing good music bilal khanRecommend