Coke Studio as Pakistan’s Soft Power

Alexa, Play “Pak Sarzameen” by Coke Studio.

For the uninitiated, let’s first understand what “Soft Power” exactly means. Military & Economic might are considered as “Hard Power”. With a strong military, you can intimidate your enemies & defeat them in battles. That is one way to get what you want. Then, you have the economic power. Why does the US impose sanctions on countries it doesn’t like? Because it can. Economic power gives you various tools like aid, sanctions, or the age-old trick of bribing the officials. These are coercive methods.

But then there is “Soft Power” too. This term was coined by Joseph Nye, an American Political Scientist. Soft Power creates a favourable image of a country in the minds of foreigners. Soft Power influences the behavior of others to make them want the outcomes you want. Like, in South Asia, Indian democracy is a benchmark. Among many things like Bollywood or Yoga, India’s democracy itself is its soft power. If the people of Bhutan are attracted towards Indian democracy, they may as well start demanding outcomes similar to what India wants. The outcome, in this case, can be staying away from authoritarian China. That is an example of soft power. The essential thing about soft power is that it is non-coercive as against the coercive hard power. There is a lot of disagreement if Soft Power is of any real use but It will be very difficult to bomb the people who your countrymen truly love.

An example of Soft Power that I want to discuss is Coke Studio Pakistan.

Chaap Tilak, one of my favourite songs from Coke Studio

What image conjures up in your mind when I say the word Pakistan? Terrorism? Military Dictatorship? Islamic Fundamentalism? Poor Citizens in Burqa and Pathani Salwar? The rich elite epitomised by the likes of Hina Rabbani Khar? For some of us, it isn’t an image but a sound, the soulful sound of Coke Studio Pakistan.

Pakistan always had an image problem. It had tried to project itself as a protector of Islam. A slogan popularized by the dictatorial regime of Zia-ul-Haq went like this:

Pakistan ka matlab kya hai? La illah illallah

(What is the meaning of Pakistan? There is no God but the God.)

There was always an effort towards uniformity. The distribution of political & economic power is Pakistan is highly skewed even today. In 1971, Bangladesh said, “Dude, I am done with you. We can’t hold this together anymore.” Pakistan has been harbouring terrorists in its territory. Osma Bin Laden was found chilling near its military garrison in Abbottabad. Then you have the Pakistani Support for Taliban, the nuclear weapons & growing intolerance & sectarian violence. This is surely not a good resume.

Coke Studio Pakistan is a show where singers & musicians perform together on the same platform in a kind of “Jugaldandi”. I have talked about the political & economic distribution in Pakistan but Coke Studio gives you a feeling that Pakistan is inclusive at least in a cultural sense. The songs are a fusion of various musical influence— eastern classical, folk, rock & contemporary popular music. The songs are easily available on YouTube & the provided translations in Urdu & English makes them reach a wide audience all over the world. It gives an impression contrary to what we have— a diverse & inclusive Pakistan where all cultures all equally respected. This is what the Coke Studio website says:

Coke Studio prides itself on providing a musical platform, which bridges barriers, celebrates diversity, encourages unity & instils a sense of Pakistani pride.

Most importantly though, the first season essentially put on the map the Coke Studio philosophy of peace & harmony and celebrating life.

This promotion of Pakistani music when the country felt truly lost is similar to the projection of French culture, its language & literature through the Alliance Francaise, which was created in 1883. This helped France repair its shattered prestige.

The songs in Coke Studio are sung in various languages— Brahui, Seraiki, Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, Farsi, Poorvi, Marvari, Balochi, Brahui, Persian, etc. Listen to the song called “Daanah Pah Daanah” written and composed by Akhtar Chanal Zahri. Just in one single song, about five languages are used. It is about a shepherd telling a story & introducing us to the beautiful land, rivers & mountains of Balochistan.

A new song in Season 11 called “Baalkada” features two transgender singers.

It is also a confluence of tradition & modernity. It takes both Western influences & indigenous classical & folk influences. Adrian Malik, the Video Producer at Coke Studio says:

The music is an honest representation of where we are today, it’s both timely & timeless; both purely Pakistani & palatably global. Coke Studio is all about unity— the collaboration of a big-hearted, open-minded Pakistanis to create something unique, beautiful & truly our own.

Pakistani music as a whole is a soft power for Pakistan. Geniuses like Abida Parveen, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan have been Pakistan’s cultural representatives. Coke Studio is just its culmination.

But does it work?

To an extent, yes. Open a Coke Studio song on youtube & scroll down to the comment section. The comment section brims with Indians and people all over the world praising how beautiful Pakistani music is. You will find Indians professing their love for the Pakistani neighbors like you won’t find anywhere else.

As CSP’s tagline goes, it truly is the “Sound of the Nation”.