Prejudices are a bitch. Social media invariably works on these prejudices as people tweet proclaiming their love and hate for various things. Sometimes people’s opinions on movies, music etc. tend to be formed before they have experienced it, solely based on other folks’ reactions to the same. I must admit to not having followed Coke Studio India solely based on the bad press it was getting in the online world (which admittedly is not a very critic-y thing to do). I loved whatever little of Coke Studio Pakistan that I’d seen on YouTube but somehow never got myself to watch Coke Studio India. This meant that i was heading to the mini-cert at Hard Rock Cafe, Bangalore with a slight preformed opinion, hoping that by the end of the night it would change.
Leslie Lewis, the show’s music director sporting a handlebar ‘stache since 1926 kicked off proceedings with a small jam alongside the backing band for the night, before introducing the first act Tochi Raina on stage. Raina, known for his playback songs in films like A Wednesday and No One Killed Jessica, started his set with ‘Rabb-e-Elahi’. The sizable crowd and their DSLR cameras roared in approval at the choice of song as Raina predictably belted out the song. He then invited Carnatic singer Mathangi on stage as they attempted a Sufi/Carnatic fusion number called ‘Yaar Basinda’. Sadly, the song wasn’t anything to write home about. Mathangi then performed ‘Tere Bin’ rather nervously as her vocal delivery was extremely unclear and hurried. Even her song introductions were completely inaudible as she mumbled her way through her set before introducing the “rockstar” Sanjeev Thomas as the next performer. Sanjeev T (as he was billed) walks the talk like a rockstar but is unfortunately more swagger than substance. Sanjeev T and Mathangi dueted on the train wreck that was ‘Akhiyan Milaoon’ (which is an ordinary song to begin with). Both singers missed their cues on multiple occasions and looked very under-rehearsed. It was at this point of time that I realized what was amiss. The entire ambition of Coke Studio was to bridge contemporary and traditional barriers, celebrate differences and explore the musical depth that spreads out across the vast cultural panorama of India. From the little I had witnessed, Coke Studio India did none of that. Here were two artists doing a marginally rockier cover of a 90s Bollywood song. There wasn’t anything refreshingly fresh, daring or new to the entire dynamic of the concert and it resembled a generic reality TV show that are dime a dozen nowadays.
Assamese folk singer Papon was on next and his presence pepped up the show up to a large degree. He played out traditional Bihu songs that are sung during the coming of spring by farmers in Assam. The songs were energetic and had a folksy non-Bollywood ring to it. Papon was easily the best artist of the night as his lively singing complimented the backing band, especially flautist Ashwin who used his array of wind instruments to imitate bird calls, which gave the Bihu songs an authentic feel. I also noticed that Papon played all three of his songs on just two chords barred at the same fret! All the artists then joined Papon on the already overcrowded stage for the encore as they performed the R.D Burman classic ‘Jaane Jaan Doondhta Fir Raha’. As far as finales go, the encore was fitting and vastly more entertaining than most of the show.
During the entire duration of the show I tried to be as objective as possible in reviewing the gig and truth be told I wasn’t very impressed with what Coke Studio India had to offer. Barring the entertaining Papon, the other artists did not really offer anything that was musically interesting. Another point of note is that the disappointing Mathangi had the most stage time. While her nervousness can be excused, reading a song off a lyric sheet definitely cannot be. The sound too was setup with an over-emphasis on the vocals while the backing band, all talented musicians I’m sure, was relegated to being just that – a backing band. A special mention goes to the acoustic guitarist who played with great feel throughout the set. The show might have entertained most people but the point of Coke Studio was spectacularly lost. But you don’t necessarily have to take this reviewer’s word for it, the crowd loved every minute of the concert.