In writing about Bhangra Rap, I talked about how ‘foreign’ and ‘native’ art forms are put together in Pakistani pop. More often than not, it is the foreign or Western art genres that govern the structure. Local elements – such as South Asian instruments like the sitar or dhol, or lyrics in local languages – are the ornamentation.
The reason early Coke Studio was interesting, was that it was the most prominent and explicit attempt to reverse this dynamic. Coke Studio music was structured around Eastern tradition with Western ornamentation on top. This didn’t happen in all songs, but by and large the arc of Rohail Hyatt’s first stint in Coke Studio was the subversion of the then preeminent order of Pakistani pop, in terms of what genre played host and what played guest.
Kangna is arguably the best recording from Coke Studio. And the accompanying behind the scenes videos (the standard Coke Studio BTS, and an additional Special Feature on the House Band), the most extensive for one song that I am aware of, help explain why.
Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad perform what the Coke Studio House Band’s dholak player Babar Khanna calls ‘Classical Qawwali’. Classical Qawwali is an innovation attributed to Nusrat as well. The main idea here is that this form of Qawwali incorporates ragas from Hindustani Classical, into the rhythm-and-poetry-focused genre of Qawwali. In itself, this is an innovation worth talking about. So I’ll go on a little diversion and then we’ll come back to Kangna.
Bringing classical to qawwali is more than a surface level bricolage. Classical ragas represent a strongly developed tradition, which requires knowledge and practice to sincerely perform. To understand ragas, it is worth discussing how melody is constructed. Seeing this through the lens of both Western and Eastern musical systems will also help understand how the two interact.
Melody is changing the pitch of sound into pleasing and recognizable combinations. The pitch of sound is an analog quantity, in that you can smoothly move from a low pitch to a high pitch by infinitesimal amounts. To make these movements audible and reproducible, music is made in a standardized system of particular pitches. This is referred to as a ‘tuning system’.
In the predominant Western tuning system, a particular pitch and another with twice the frequency are said to be an octave apart. Each octave is then divided into 12 notes. The keys of a piano, and the frets of a guitar correspond to one note. Melodies are created by picking a subset of these notes, and ordering them. These subsets of notes are called scales.
Scales tend to have moods associated with them. What is called a major scale, sounds happy. A minor scale sounds sad and haunting. It is unclear if there is something inherent about these combinations that evokes these feelings, or if it is something we have learned culturally. Musicians rely on our subconscious associations of feelings with scale as they construct melody.
Now to Hindustani music. Tuning systems in North Indian Classical music subdivide octaves into a different, larger set of notes than the predominant Western system. But as Western instruments are added, South Asian music is simplified to fit Western tuning. The differences and nuances of the two tuning systems is hence, lost.
But a core difference between the two traditions is what the music is centered around. If Western music is built around a piano, Hindustani music is built around the human voice. The human voice – unlike the piano – is analog. Moving from a one key in a piano to the next causes a discrete jump in pitch. The human voice is able to smoothly modulate from one to the other. So Hindustani music’s first governing principle is a level of additional complexity that is beyond the fundamentals of Western music. Even when the additional steps in tuning are lost in musical instruments, the one place where the remaining ‘microtones’ or ‘shrutis’ remain is in the voice.
This brings us to ragas. A raga, like a scale, is a collection of notes. Ragas tend to not only specify the set of notes they are made of, but also rules about the order in which notes should be hit, and characteristic movements between those notes. Each raga can be associated with a mood, venue, and/or time of day.
In Western music, there is also a tradition of common note movements within scales. These are called modes.
So in a sense, ragas are closely analoged with modes, but they have a different, parallel historical tradition. This tradition is passed down in formal coaching from musician to musician, but is also slowly internalized by audiences as they listen to songs set in ragas all their lives. Over time, just as we begin to learn that major scales sound happy, we also learn to recognize certains ragas as evoking a particular time, such as a the season of barsaat, or more generally as sounding of home. You can feel them, even if you can’t name them.
The Western and Hindustani Classical traditions present two different ways of identifying notes, and selecting within them to create recognizable melodies. These are a function of different historical and technological trajectories. The Western tradition, given its breadth of published literature, proliferation through modern pop culture, and availability of instruments, offers an easier pathway for modern musicians in Pakistani cities. As a result of this, the Hindustani tuning system is less prevalent. And for many musicians in urban Pakistan, Western scales are more accessible than Hindustani ragas. The Hindustani tradition progresses orally for the most part, such as in the music of Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad, and of other musical gharanas that settled on each side of the border after partition.
Back to Classical Qawwali. The innovation of this genre was to position the formal knowledge of ragas into the environment of Qawwali. Doing so is not just a question of transplanting a simple set of notes from one melody into a Qawwali performance, it is an immersion of Qawwali in the historical tradition of ragas. The exercise is only complete if the structure and ethos of the raga, as determined through its historical development, is truthfully represented in the setting of a Qawwali.
Qawwali is concerned with a performance of spirituality that inculcates a sense of devotion and is designed to make an audience feel a rush of energy that can be directed to something larger than themselves. This fever is induced by rhythm and lyrics – the beat pushes you into a trance or maybe onto your feet, and the poetry fires you up behind a motif.
Classical Qawwali uses the additional power of a raga to add another mood onto this fever. It is in a sense, a doubly-hard art form. Because it promises to uphold not one, but two historical traditions in a performance driven by improvisation and learned mastery of rhythm and pitch.
Kangna however, is not just a Classical Qawwali. It takes this genre further by then ornamenting it with prog-rock.
Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad chose this particular melody because they decide they want to have some fun. Instead of taking something simple to Coke Studio, they took something uncommon even by Eastern standards. The core difficulty of Kangna is that the song is structured around a 10-beat cycle. (Most music you hear is in a 4-beat cycle; 3 is also common. Other variations exist, but are rare.) In general terms, the more beats you add to a cycle, the harder it is to play. This is because it is hard for a mind and body to memorize and repeat a complex set of movements, especially in a pattern it does not encounter normally.
The other complication of this song (and this is not limited to Kangna but is inherent to the Classical and the Qawwali genres) is frequent improvisation. Where most of Western pop is essentially a script of notes to be played from back to front, Eastern songs and qawwalis in particular are more a loose structure around which each performance can be based. The performer utilizes their years of academy in mastering the underlying structures (the raga and the taal, the pitch and the rhythm) to then conduct an infinite array of variation on top.
The House Band understand this situation, and instead of trying to keep track of the improvisation, decide they will play only two riffs while the Qawwals do whatever they want on top. The riffs draw from prog-rock, a genre of Western pop known to take pride in musical virtuosity and experiment with funky time signatures.
One main riff underpins most of the song, and this is built around the bass-line of Pink Floyd’s Money. That song too was in an odd time signature (a 7-beat cycle), and provides a good template on how to supplement the Qawwali: a moody musical line repeated over and over. The variety is added by the voices on top.
The second riff the House Band plays is a way to get into the chorus, and is modeled around the music of the band Yes. The song Roundabout is a very interesting parallel.
The improvisation that the Qawwals do on top of the basic 10-beat structure has its own set of complications. When the Qawwals improvise, they don’t really worry about the underlying 10-beat structure. They may switch to a totally different pattern, but when they decide to come back they do so in a way that fits the original 10-beat cycle they departed from. The House Band is unable to follow the Qawwals as they depart the main structure of the song. But they must trust that as long as they stay true to the initial promise of the song’s structure, that the Qawwals will come back to meet them.
The fun bit is that the structure of the Qawwali itself is so complicated that with this added improvisation on top, the House Band has no idea where they are in the song and hence does not know when to play the riff that leads into the chorus. In order to queue them, the Qawwals actually physically signal when they are about to head to a chorus, and the House Band then follows.
This relationship between the House Band and the Qawwals represents the underlying subversion that was interesting about early Coke Studio. The focus of the effort was to restructure the nature of popular music around Eastern tradition as opposed to the Western. Since much of the House Band came from Western style pop bands, there is an understood nativity to the Western tradition built into their ethos. With the credibility of the House Band’s musicians in terms of their prior work, the House Band could easily have become the star of Coke Studio. Centering every song around the performance of the House Band in their ‘native’ Western tradition. Instead the House Band defers to the guest musicians, nearly all of whom are vocalists, just as the Hindustani classical tradition defers to the vocal.