Where have all the creative souls gone?

  • A polite reminder that music is not plastic

Recycling is a great idea. Provided one is talking about plastic, paper or metals. Not so much when it comes to music and certainly not when practically all the musicians of the country use it as a convenient way to make an easy buck and to stay relevant.

The twelfth season of Coke Studio has just taken off with Atif Aslam’s cover of Wohi Khuda Hai.  The question isn’t whether Atif Aslam did justice to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s original. Of course, he couldn’t possibly have. No heightened powers of expression and no greater musical gift could have transformed an Atif Aslam, or anybody else for that matter, into Nusrat. There’s no accounting for tastes, so there are plenty of those who believe Atif did rather well. The real question however is, why is there such dearth of creativity. (Sorry, fancy choruses and electronic gimmickry on old tunes don’t qualify.) Why are musicians, including the so-called stars, so averse to producing original work?

As if on cue, Ali Zafar, has also released a duet which, according to a report, ‘reinvents’ the Balochi classic Laila o Laila. And as if the reinventing bit wasn’t enough, another gimmick has been thrown in for good measure: the female singer is 12 years old! The message is loud and clear: for hits anything is kosher. Interestingly, the same folk song had also been redone, not too long ago, on Coke Studio too. (Well, which folk song hasn’t?) Then, Rostam Mirlashari had apparently beaten Ali to it. Well, Ali has had his revenge now.

While it’s true that folk songs don’t belong to any one man, there comes a time (after 200 ‘reinventions’, say?) when they must be retired in favour of fresher stuff.

This sums up our musical landscape nicely: If it’s not a ‘tribute’ to some artist, it’s a folk tune that is rehashed and presented amid much fanfare as some sort of a musical miracle. While it’s true that folk songs don’t belong to any one man, there comes a time (after 200 ‘reinventions’, say?) when they must be retired in favour of fresher stuff. Incorporating folk here and there in one’s own creations is one thing; repeating it wholesale is quite another.

This is by no means the first time for Atif. He sang another classic Tajdar e Haram (a ‘tribute’ to Sabri Brothers) also for Coke Studio, as recently as in 2015. Ali Zafar is also a veteran recycler, having rehashed Jaan e Bahaaran, and Ae Dil Kisi Ki Yaad Mein, both for Coke Studio. A brief survey of Coke Studio songs over the years makes it clear that rehashing is by no means an occasional affair; instead, practically half the numbers in every season come under the category of ‘tribute’ or folk.

While we are at it, we might as well get straight once for all what does (and what doesn’t) qualify as a ‘tribute’. S.D. Burman narrates an interesting incident. Fishing at a village pond on the outskirts of Calcutta, he had nothing to show for his patient wait of many hours. Frustrated, he was about to call it a day when a lad of about ten jumped into the pond and started singing Tadbeer Se Bigri Hui Taqdeer Bana Le, quite unaware that the delighted composer of the song was within earshot. That was a tribute. Recycling somebody else’s creation on a commercial platform, merely replacing the original orchestration and interval pieces (which in case of a classic are every bit as divine as the tune is) by ‘modern’ instrumentation and then presenting it as some sort of a service to the cause of music is not a tribute. It’s theft.

Tajdar e Haram is the biggest Coke Studio hit to date. Wohi Khuda hai has had ten million views inside four days. One could ask what exactly the problem is if the masses like covers, but then what choice do the masses have? It’s hard to say what’s worse: musicians shortchanging their audiences by selling old stuff in new packaging; or the fans lapping it all up.

This creative laziness has a way of rubbing itself on everybody, which is detrimental to most artistes themselves. How unfortunate that Zohaib Hassan chose to recycle Nazia’s or his own songs each time he got the opportunity at Coke Studio. A pity that such a wide audience was deprived of original work from an accomplished composer.

Atif has hinted that he doesn’t undertake the aforementioned devotional projects for money or fame, but as part of a search for something better. All the more reason he should embark on that search on his own steam, rather than on somebody else’s hard work.

It’s one thing to sing in a birthday party. Or inside a bathroom, where there should be complete freedom. But rehashing classics commercially under any noble-sounding guise needs to stop. Can we have it made unlawful by an act of parliament? And can we have an especially stiff penalty for recycling something sung by the great Nusrat, even if – especially if – it’s by his own kith and kin?

While on the subject of kith and kin, Rahat Fateh Ali is on the Coke Studio list again this season. It’s a safe bet that unless restrained he will rehash some old song, probably one by uncle Nusrat. Can we have our legislation in place before he goes ahead and does that? The clock is ticking.

As for folk, would it be too much to suggest that items like Balle Balle and Jugni may have worn themselves out, and that it won’t be such a bad idea to leave them alone for a while? In the meantime, can our musicians, especially the stars, come up with some original work please?