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20 Greatest Songs From Coke Studio Pakistan And India, Ranked

The music on this list wins every time, whether it’s from Pakistan or India.
Screenshot Coke Studio Pakistan logo
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrPvQvbp3Cg
Screenshot Coke Studio Pakistan logo

If there’s a utopia of collective harmony in the digital space, it has to be the YouTube comments section for any half-decent Coke Studio song. Regardless of whether the songs have been uploaded a few months or a decade ago, there are always fresh comments. It’s commonplace to see Indian fans say things like, “Nafrat sirf news channel pe dikhti hai, logon ke beech mein nahin (You can see hatred only in news channels, not between people)” and Pakistani commenters going into raptures and sending their “respect” for “India-waley” when someone like A R Rahman performs. Indeed, there are fans well beyond South Asia as well, with comments coming in from the US to Mexico to Ghana.

It’s all a testament to the boundary-defying timelessness of Coke Studio, a televised musical platform which began in Pakistan in 2007 and first aired in 2008. The Indian version of the show, MTV Coke Studio, premiered in 2011.

To watch this show is to feel almost as if you’re in a jam-room with some of the best musicians in India and Pakistan (and beyond), while they experiment with combining influences from rock, jazz, and reggae with Hindustani classical, qawwali, ghazal, and tribal folk. The effect is often transcendental.

Only in Coke Studio can an Atif Aslam riff on Michael Jackson and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, while the guitarists slip in a tribute to Led Zeppelin, all in the span of a single song. They all belong here, and are all equally welcome as long as they’re creating great music.

But where do you start, when you have 16 seasons — 12 from Pakistan and four from India — to go through? Here then are 20 of the greatest (according to me) Coke Studio songs ever, ranked.

20. Aao Balma

Considering that A R Rahman built his career entirely on fusion, it was expected that he would eventually appear on Coke Studio. He finally debuted on the third season of the Indian edition of the show. Given the maestro’s stellar reputation, the episode was, well, adequate. But we do see flashes of his mastery in Aao Balma, a song featuring Ustad Ghulam Mustafa’s classical Hindustani vocals, Rahman’s piano, Mohini Dey’s bass, and Sivamani’s percussion. It weaves together three versions — Hindustani, Carnatic, and Western — of Raag Yaman, ensuring that the listener is continuously surprised by what starts out like a straightforward fusion composition.

19. Yatra

At the time Amit Trivedi took on the reins for the third episode of MTV Coke Studio’s second season in 2012, he was the toast of the town. He’d just delivered superb fusion songs in films like Dev.D, I Am, and Aiyyaa, so expectations were obviously high. And they were more than met with Yatra, a brave composition featuring a mind-melting range of influences, including Afro beats and backing vocals, prominent shehnai, and even a Carnatic keerthanam. The song, sung by Mili Nair, talks about the journey of life through all its ups and downs, and is quite enjoyable by itself. But it’s Sriram Iyer’s keerthanam towards the end that elevates ‘Yatra’ to the next level.

18. Aaqa

Pakistan’s Sufi doyenne Abida Parveen graced Coke Studio with her presence in Chaap Tilak and Main Sufi Hoon. But, arguably, her finest moment came in Season 9 in this duet with one of Pakistan’s brightest upcoming singers, Ali Sethi. In this divine qawwali, Parveen’s deep one-of-a-kind vocals contrast fabulously with the higher-than-usual pitch adopted by Sethi. Listen out for the plaintive line, “Aye mere maalik, mere khaaliq, mere haajat-rawa, jab nahin ho saath koi, bas tera hai aasara (O my lord, my creator, when there is no one by my side, you are my only support)″, which is sung by both in their inimitable styles, acting as a bridge for the chorus.

17. Tauba

Papon’s Tauba in the fifth episode of Season 3 of MTV Coke Studio is debatably the most ‘fun’ performance in the Indian version of the show. Papon makes a series of great decisions as the producer of the episode, starting with getting Benny Dayal to sing the song. Dayal brings his signature ease to Tauba, which features gypsy influences, Afro beats, and a pinch of Assamese folk. It’s an absolute treat to the ears. Vaibhav Modi’s wicked lyrics — such as, ”Fukra hai nashukra, par dil ka accha hai yeh dil mera (It’s thankless and good for nothing, but my heart is good at heart)” — are the icing on the cake.

16. Tajdar-E-Haram

Atif Aslam, the Pakistani playback singer who has been entrusted with belting out several lovesick songs in Hindi cinema, harnesses a more controlled emotional energy in this paean to the almighty. In Tajdar-e-Haram, his balmy vocals — accompanied by the deceptively effortless-sounding arrangement by Strings (Faisal Kapadia and Bilal Maqsood) — retains the essence of the original 1982 qawwali by the Sabri Brothers, changing tempo flawlessly and gliding its way back.

15. Bibi Sanam

One of the earliest ‘viral’ songs from Zeb Bangash and Haniya Aslam, Bibi Sanam was based on a traditional Afghan folk song. It caught everyone’s attention for its Pashto lyrics and the unique pairing of the rubab (a traditional Afghan string instrument) with a solid bass groove. Bangash’s ethereal vocals lend the folksy song a universal appeal.

14. Afreen Afreen

Possibly the most streamed Coke Studio song on YouTube (and elsewhere, if anyone’s keeping count), this reinterpretation of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s 1996 original was a pleasant surprise for many. It took the original composition’s imposing nature, broke it down, and invited everyone to join in. The version by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Momina Mustehsan had a leisurely pace and oozed warmth. This version of Afreen Afreen earned new fans for the song, while also satisfying Nusrat fans by retaining all the major parts of the original composition.

13. Tera Woh Pyaar (Nawazishein Karam)

Another massive hit from Season 9 of Coke Studio Pakistan, this ballad composed by Shuja Haider and sung by Asim Azhar and Momina Mustehsan had a splendid, strong melody. Mustehsan’s honey-laced vocals coupled with Azhar’s raspy voice, along with the thoughtful flourishes in the song’s arrangement by Strings, made for an irresistibly romantic combination.

12. Ghir Ghir

When MTV Coke Studio in India was first handed over to Leslie Lewis, in 2010, the season was scatter-shot at best. However, one big bright spot in that middling season was Advaita’s Ghir Ghir, a version of a song from their 2009 album Grounded in Space. It’s Hindustani classical-rock fusion at its finest. Although it does not reinvent the space, it’s such a superbly conceived and performed song that even today it remains one of the truly outstanding moments from the Indian Coke Studio.

11. Saari Raat

The band Noori (with vocals by brothers Ali Noor and Ali Hamza) came up with this gem of a song in the second season of Coke Studio. With Ali Noor’s muscular baritone taking centrestage, and Hamza providing a counterpoint with backup vocals, the song unfurls like a classic rhapsody. Noor’s voice veers from soft whispers to impassioned cries, while the eclectic background arrangement incorporates slow beats, classical fusion, and even reggae rhythms at one point.

10. Ranjish Hi Sahi

One of Pakistan’s most gifted singers from the current crop, Ali Sethi found his way into people’s hearts through a variety of Coke Studio performances. He is especially appreciated for his respectful yet contemporary reinterpretations of classic ghazals in the 2010s. One of Sethi’s finest hours on this platform is his rendition of Mehdi Hassan’s Ranjish Hi Sahi. He fluently makes the song his own, but without letting us forget that it’s a tribute. It’s a fine line, and he walks it with a finesse that few would expect of a ‘young’ singer.

9. Rona Chhor Diya

Zeb Bangash and Haniya Aslam’s assured and beautifully crafted album Chup! (2008) is one of the landmark pop albums from the subcontinent in the last 20 years – it’s written from the point of view of a strong, assertive woman, subverting the trope of the pining man that dominates the genre. One of the songs from this album, Rona Chhor Diya was performed in Coke Studio’s second season. This time, Zeb and Haniya were accompanied by Javed Bashir, who recites sargams with laser-like precision. The result — the melding of the duo’s rock-and-roll ditty with Bashir’s intimidating alaaps — is a match made in heaven.

8. Mauje Naina

Produced by Clinton Cerejo for the second season of MTV Coke Studio, the song (featuring the vocals of Bianca Gomes and brothers Shadab and Altamash Faridi) is a near perfect confluence of east and west. Mauje Naina is about the internal conflict of an unfaithful spouse, and the sounds are sufficiently dark to match. Gomes’s vocals embody the allure of forbidden fruit, while the Faridi brothers are the voices of turmoil and anguish. Gomes’s jazz-style singing in English and the Faridis’ qawwal vocal texture are the perfect foil for each other. Cerejo (who has served as producer for the likes of Vishal Bhardwaj) is in complete control of his vision, landing the song with great success.

7. Charkha Nolakha Da

One of the greatest musical contributions of Coke Studio over the years has been the defining of ‘Sufi blues’ as a genre. It’s a heady concoction that features elements of the qawwali groove, Sufi poetry, and contemporary instruments. And this invention was, in my opinion, perfected with Season 5′s Charkha Nolakha Da, sung by Atif Aslam and Qayaas. It took Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s original composition of the same title (borrowed from Bulleh Shah), and replaced the conventional groove of the harmonium and tabla with assured and constant guitar riffs. The song’s high point arrives in the form of a tense Atif Aslam improvisation being broken by (none other than) a giant gong. It’s this kind of imagination that makes Coke Studio such a fertile ground for truly great music.

6. Garaj Baras

Featuring Junoon’s Ali Azmat and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, this is another one of the early ‘viral’ songs from Coke Studio’s first season. Composed by Azmat, Garaj Baras had earlier been used as a promotional song for the John Abraham-starrer Paap (2003), but it achieved widespread fame only after Rahat Fateh Ali Khan weighed in with his soaring sargam interludes to offset Azmat’s gruff vocals. Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s penultimate alaap is one of the primary reasons why the song is so well-known even today.

5. Nindiya Re

In a setting so used to high-voltage spectacles, Jaffer Zaidi’s lullaby is something of an outlier, but its gentleness didn’t prevent it from making an impression. Zaidi’s band (Kaavish) and Rohail Hyatt’s fabulously understated arrangement weave a kind of magic, perfectly complementing Zaidi’s dream-like vocals. What an absolutely spellbinding song!

4. Husna

Who knew Piyush Mishra would come up with one of MTV Coke Studio’s best songs? Mishra, who was at the helm of the soundtrack for Anurag Kashyap’s Gulaal, is lent a helping hand here by music producer Hitesh Sonik (Stanley Ka Dabba). Known for his distinctive style of singing and his stinging words, Mishra lives up to his reputation as he sings to ‘Husna’, an imagined beloved on the other side of the India-Pakistan border. Sonik allows Mishra’s haunting words to build up the tension in the first few minutes of the song. Then, slowly, the distorted electric guitars and drums catch up with Mishra, as the song reaches a crescendo, and then leaps towards greatness. To Sonik’s credit, he takes Mishra’s already eerie (and great) composition, and makes it one of the finest songs to have emerged from Coke Studio India.

3. Shikwa/Jawab-E-Shikwa

This song in Season 11 of Coke Studio was radical even by the show’s high standards of innovation. It sees Natasha Baig, Fareed Ayaz, and Abu Muhammad Qawwal & Brothers giving a contemporary twist to two of Muhammad Iqbal’s greatest poems — one a complaint to Allah and the other a reply from him. The song begins with Baig singing portions of ‘Shikwa’ (The Complaint), but it’s only when the more traditional qawwali begins with ‘Jawaab-E-Shikwa’ (Response to the Complaint) that things hit a peak that Coke Studio has rarely reached. The melody takes a sharp bend, most contemporary instruments go silent, and there’s only percussion accompanying the unwavering voices of Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad Qawwal & Brothers. Both these melodies somehow come together in the end, and the listener can only be thankful for the rewarding journey.

2. Naina Moray

This fusion tour de force, sung by Akbar Ali and Javed Bashir, is one of the finest compositions to have come out of all the seasons of Coke Studio. The song has two parts — a thumri called Naina Moray (originally sung by Bade Ghulam Ali Khan) performed by Akbar Ali and a qawwali titled Mann Atkeya Beparwah De Naal, written by Sufi poet Shah Hussein, and vocalised here by Javed Bashir. Belonging to similar parent raags (Bhairavi and Jaunpuri), the two songs fuse effortlessly, enhancing the splendid textures of Ali’s and Bashir’s singing. The arrangement by Jaffer Zaidi is almost hypnotic, particularly in the way he brings together the sarangi with a heavily distorted electric guitar sound.

1. Kangna

Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad Qawwal & Brothers brought their 750-year lineage of qawwali to Coke Studio in its fourth season. What transpired was, in my reckoning, the most mesmerising jam session on the Coke Studio premises. Produced by Rohail Hyatt, it gives the two singers free rein to gallop like wild stallions, as the musicians follow them with a single, tenacious bassline and beat, allowing many variations during the song’s runtime of close to 16 minutes. The song was also later used to build up tension during the opening credits of Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2014).

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This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost India, which closed in 2020. Some features are no longer enabled. If you have questions or concerns about this article, please contact indiasupport@huffpost.com.