Coke Studio @ MTV Season 1 Episode 1: A Review

After three days of launch of the Indian edition of Coke Studio I finally got to see the show yesterday. With all the hype and the mixed responses tending to extreme levels, it has been a painful wait indeed! So here are my thoughts on the first episode of Coke Studio @ MTV. You can click on the song title to watch the song on youtube.

O Majhi Re — Sourav Moni, Shaan

Yes, it starts with a Bollywood track. But also one counted among the most respectable songs from the industry, among the best examples of folk infusion in Hindi music, by the inimitable Pancham da (The intro scroller credits the song to SD Burman. Mistake in the intro piece itself?!), therefore in no way an inappropriate song to start off with. And Leslie Lewis has treated the song with the respect it deserves, slowly building up to a crescendo. Those familiar with Leslie’s work for Colonial Cousins and the wonderful soundtrack of Apna Aasmaan would instantly get reminded of those in some parts of the orchestration. The vocalists Shaan and Sourav Moni are on the opposite extremes regarding their music, voice et al, and it is in this contrast that the beauty lies. I got very much reminded of the combo of Saieen Zahoor and Noori who again presented a similar level of dissimilitude in Aik Alif. And Moni is impeccable in his rendition of the Bengali folk portions. There might have been better replacements for Shaan on the Hindi part, but the man has in the past done immense justice to Kishore da songs with groups like Instant Karma, so his choice was only logical. And he does his job quite well, faltering ever so slightly in the improv portions. The in-house band proves its mettle in this song itself, the flautist especially doing a fantabulous job in the second half. Wonderful start to the episode all in all.

Yaar Basainda — Tochi Rainaa, Mathangi Rajasekhar

In this song Tochi Rainaa presents a classic case of why overdependence on Bollywood singers might not be a very good idea. Here too there is a sharp contrast, apart from the obvious Punjabi-Carnatic one — that between Mathangi Rajasekhar’s elegant and perfect navigation through the complex nuances of the bahudaari raga-based Brova Barama, and Tochi’s often off-key and botched-up singing (or from the sound of it in places, belching) of Yaar Basainda. There doesn’t seem to be much of a seamless fusion happening between the two genres. It’s just a carnatic song fast forwarded and force-fitted into a Punjabi song in three parts. Having done such superlative carnatic-based fusion with Colonial Cousins one would expect better from Lezz. Nevertheless, loved Mathangi, what a voice and what singing; to render those brugas with such perfection at that pace is one mean feat. And lovely sitar in that interlude! Tochi might have done some good Bollywood songs, but here he is hardly that self. Couldn’t this song have better been rendered by some established Punjabi singer?

Tip Top & Me Dolkar — Khagen Gogoi, Shankar Mahadevan

One of the people I was most waiting to see perform on Coke Studio, Shankar Mahadevan. With another prolific singer from Assam, Khagen Gogoi. Also, the backing vocalists make their first appearance. A cute bunch they appear, like in the Pak edition. 🙂 Almost the entire first half is taken up by Gogoi with his dainty rendition of the Bihu folk song called Tip Top. Lezz could probably have avoided the drums set for this, it would have sounded more beautiful with just the flute and the dholak-esque percussion (its a dhol apparently, thanks to Manash for the information). And then enters Shankar in his inimitable style, starting from a Himalayan level high note with the familiar Koli geet Me Dolkar. And he delivers it with perfection, adding a lot of improvs, and the two singers combine their portions towards the end in a very impressive manner. But at the end of it, I am left slightly disappointed with Shankar (no not coz of the Bollywood factor, I shall never denigrate Shankar Mahadevan calling him a Bwood singer, he is much much more than that!). No doubt he does a splendid job of the song, but imho, he is over-qualified for the song. When I wished for Shankar to be on Coke Studio, it was to see some kickass classical-based fusion, the sorts he has done with acclaimed musicians worldwide. Me Dolkar needed someone much less sophisticated, someone who would deliver the fishermen’s song as it is. On that front I felt Shankar was out of place here. Hope he returns this season itself the way I wish him to, doing what he does awe-inspiringly well.

Vethalai — Chinna Ponnu, Kailash Kher

The best song of the episode so far for the way the fusion works. While most of the song is taken up by the infectiously cheery Chinna Ponnu (whose world-famous Naakku Mukka few among you would not have danced to) with the Tamil street song, Kailash plays the supporting role wonderfully with an own-comp that goes perfectly with the Tamil portion despite being a Hindi song with its own identity. It is lovely to see the two singers complement each other in places. Even the short tarana portion at the end is nice. The only crib, sounds in this one. There was nothing to be heard of the claps done in between despite there being such a lot people clapping. And was it just me or was there something wrong with Sanjeev Thomas’ guitar solo with the thavil player (whose name I do not know unfortunately Kumar, Chinna Ponnu’s husband, thanks to Arun for the update)?

Bichua — Bondo, Sunidhi Chauhan, Mousam Gogoi

The second Bollywood cover for the evening, but once again like the first one, a folk-based tune, one adapted from Assam by Salil Choudhary for Madhumati and sung by Lata Mangeshkar. Part of it also adapted by the Colonial Cousins for their song Feel Alright. And Sunidhi is another person I was happy about being on the show. Having followed her from her Meri Awaaz Suno days I have been disappointed at the way she has been utilized in Bollywood, almost 90% of her repertoire comprised of item numbers. Coke Studio was one place she could set her voice free once again, I had thought. And with her was another Assamese singer Mousam Gogoi. Having already adapted this song as Feel Alright, I was afraid Bichua might end up sounding pretty much the same. But Lezz takes it to the other extreme, with a heavily percussion-oriented exuberant arrangement. Sunidhi, while delivering the song with matching energy, hardly sounds her flowing self. She visibly struggles to deliver the more complex portions. Not that she falters at any place, but she seems to be on the brink. Sad what item-ization can do to you. It is Mousam who appears towards the latter half of the song and steals the thunder from right under Sunidhi’s nose with an effortless classical-based rendition of folk portions. Having said that, the two singers collaborate beautifully in the grand culmination with their improvs.

Chadta Suraj — Sabri Brothers, KK

With this song the show enters the Coke Studio Pakistan territory, giving a contemporary repackaging to a traditional qawwali. Not having heard the original qawwali by Aziz Nazan I cannot comment on how well Chadta Suraj was adapted by Leslie Lewis, but I did like what I heard. It might have been to bring the contrast factor again, that Leslie paired the classically-well rooted Sabri brothers with the predominantly melody-oriented KK. And it does work to quite an extent, except when it comes to the soaring portions towards the end. Sure, KK has done Tadap Tadap, but then he wasn’t singing it with anyone else. Here, the effort to catch up with the prolific Toshi and Sharib Sabri brothers (apparently Toshi and Sharib are a different set of Sabri brothers. Too many Sabri brothers I say! Thanks to @diogeneb for pointing out the mistake) does not leave KK’s vocal chords in very good shape in the end. Once again got me thinking whether they should have gone for an alternate singer.

Hoo — Harshdeep Kaur

The show ends on another genre very much seen in the Pakistan edition, a melancholic shivranjani raga-based sufi song originally composed by Sultan Baahu, but with variations by singer Harshdeep, she tells me. This track was the first to be released officially by MTV. I had liked it right then, and repeated listens have done little to the likeability. The singing is spot on, being no newbie to the genre Harsheep delivers it with finesse, and the arrangement totally complements her singing. The reverb on the vocals could have been toned down though, such powerful voices really don’t need that and it sticks out badly in places.

To sum up, not the perfect start to Coke Studio @ MTV. But hey, even Coke Studio Pakistan was not built in a day! Go see their Season 1 and you will know. And looking at things here it will take far less time for Coke Studio India to attain their current level. Regarding quality of music there is no doubt. Some more judiciousness in the choice of singers is where the episode was majorly lacking, there were clear misfits. It is ok to have Bollywood singers on the show for that initial traction, but probably not so many per episode. Once again to draw a parallel with the Pak. edition, CS did not become popular in India coz their singers were stars. In fact most of them became stars coz of their performance on the show. Nevertheless, that still doesn’t warrant the excessive negativity towards the show. The only thing I would tell the detractors is, after a long time MTV is seriously looking to contribute in a way that justifies their name. Let’s give them a chance, shan’t we? After all, to rephrase Mr. Shastri, in the end music should be the real winner. 🙂

Music Aloud Rating — 6.5/10

Top Recos — Hoo, Vethalai, O Majhi Re, Chadta Suraj

Sonal says:

Thanks. Very nice review. Even I felt some places they could have done with lesser instruments to bring out the beauty of the song. Also I would like if less of Bollywood songs are used. We have so many beautiful songs in folk. This can be a platform for them. I am sure the other episodes of Coke Studio will learn lessons from the previous ones and be there – right at the top 🙂

VIP says:

@Arun: not sure about mathangi man. this was the first time i came across the artist, so dunno her background. wonderful singer undoubtedly. and thanx about the thavil player, shall update.

Arun says:

Sensible, balanced review, Vipin!

Is this the same Mathangi who hosts music shows on various Tamil channels? Very good singing, considering all those taal changes.

btw, the Thavil player is Chinna Ponnu’s husband, Kumar. 🙂

VIP says:

@manash: have updated it. Thanx a lot for the info! 🙂 i kept thinking dhol had a heavier sound.

Manash says:

The dholak-esque percussion you have mentioned in “Tip Top & Me Dolkar – Khagen Gogoi, Shankar Mahadevan” is called DHOL. Any Assamese cant resist the sound of a dhol! 😉