Breaking Barriers-Behind the Veil of Coke Studio With Zara Madani

Listening to Zara Madani’s vocals in 2020’s  Pardesiya, we hear a delicate play of back and forth, like an embodiment of the story of the mythical nymph Echo trapped in the mountains. Her voice is silvery, with a somewhat crystal chime to it, making us feel as though we are being haunted by a presence, albeit a beautiful ghostly one.

Perhaps this is why Zara had introduced the song as being

“about longing. . . a conversation taking place between a person and their inner-self.”

When we ask Zara what she felt while composing this number and whether this luring, slightly dark air to it was intentional, her answer surprises us. She speaks pensively, with what we’d call tehrao in her manner, but with crisp enunciated consonants, an inadvertent nod to her classical music background. She refers to her earlier work, the Khuda Ki Liye soundtrack, and songs from Coke Studio Season 6, all of which have the same drawn-out, melancholic notes.

Haunting’, as everyone is calling it now” she quotes with a laugh,

“I don’t feel it was. That’s pretty much become my signature…” she states, but then quickly corrects herself. “Actually, I wouldn’t call it mine, it’s very much Rohail and me – on my own I don’t create this sort of sound.”

So, where and how did this alchemy with Rohail Hyatt begin?

“I met Rohail through a friend, Nadia Hussain, the model.”

This was an appointment for guidance of sorts, where Zara asked him how to put her classical training to use. Her eyes glaze over as the memories of over 14 years ago flood in. “He asked me to sing something and I chose an old bandish that I had learnt from my mother. I still remember, it was in Rag Des.”

Hyatt was (no surprises there) mesmerized and said he had never heard a voice like hers. Soon after, he invited her to come and sing for the 2007 blockbuster, Khuda Ke Liye

Zara elaborates on her Once Upon A Time:

“When he played the film and some of his music ideas, I randomly started humming.” He enjoyed toying around with certain “tonalities and scales on his guitars and keyboard, and I would respond naturally (in song). ‘Why don’t you record these ideas?’ he then said, and I was like ‘But I don’t even know what I’m doing!’”

Hyatt swiftly reassured her, thus that little recording session turned out to be both the first take AND the final recording for the soundtrack. Clearly, their chemistry is much more organic in nature than orchestrated.

“Certain scenes moved me” adds Zara animatedly, “like the one where the female protagonist flees capture.” This clip inspired her part in the track ‘Escape’: the mélange of the metallic guitar twang, with Zara’s evocative plea to the Almighty, and the precision of the percussion is notably poignant here. However, the finest collaboration on this soundtrack by far would be ‘Reunion’, where Zara’s pristine voice, complemented by an ethereal peal-like bell sound, creates ripples through one’s being.

Escape Video

Reunion video

Is this synergy what conceived the concept of Coke Studio then? 

Zara hesitates: “Rohail would be able to answer that better,” but does acknowledge that he was already gravitating to this specific sound and texture, “he wanted to make it bigger.” She also credits Hyatt for introducing her to Western music; “As a kid I listened to very intense music: Ghazals and Classical,”  but we note that to quite an extent, she too exposed him to the Eastern Classical genre. “He was intrigued by my knowledge and understanding, we always discuss Ragas and Shurtis at length.

I have learned immensely from Rohail and I would like to think that maybe he has learned something from me.”

Zara’s alternate sound can be sampled in the more playful, upbeat melody of 2020’s Gul Sunn, which she composed particularly with Meesha Shafi in mind.

“Why not sing it yourself?” we teased.

“The Chulbullapun wasn’t my style, it would suit her better,” she replies.

Zara’s older tracks Maan Lo and Payaam are also very different in feel to the ones created in partnership with Hyatt. In addition, this season she has composed the tarana for Wajeeha Naqvi’s Yaqeen as well as her own part in Dil Tarpe with the maestro Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. We were let in on a little tidbit of the next episode-Zara is also behind the chants that complement Bohemia’s much awaited rap number!

With regard to 2020’s Qawwali, Rahat Fateh had said: “I don’t think anyone has experimented with a tarana like we have here.”

On her experience with the Grandmaster, Zara admits to being a little intimidated and laughs shyly, “ just because he is Khaa Sahab,” (we notice she doesn’t enunciate the noon in Khan, but pronounces a perfect ghunna). Whilst he performed, she confesses that she was humming along in her head as she felt a collaboration would add a freshness to the sound, but was too shy to share it at the time. Only later, when working on the arrangement with Hyatt were these ideas voiced.

And does it only become part of the Qawwali if the Ustad approves?” we probe. “Not at all,” she states unequivocally, “Khaa Sahab has absolute trust in Rohail’s production.”

“How has your childhood influenced your work?”

Zara reminisces of her childhood in Bhopal, and we realize music runs strongly in her blood. She paints a picture of a large, colourful household, evenings filled with impromptu Sangeet sessions and extended family in and out of the home regularly. Her mother too, is a classically trained singer with a unique deep timbre, that Zara insists is far superior to her own, although she never sang professionally. Zara herself, trained at a young age under Ustad Akhtar Ali Khan, a pupil of Barhe Ghulam Ali, yet he was more of a family friend and never even charged her a fee.

Can we look forward to a duet with your mother anytime soon? we say, trying to twist her arm.

Uff, I wish”, Zara laments. “She has asthma and is a perfectionist so wouldn’t be happy with her notes due to her breathing issues. She is also my biggest critic!”

So what advice would you give to upcoming artists looking for their big break?

“I would like to tell them to give time to their training and riyaz, that’s what gets you places”.

In Zara’s eyes, a passion for music, fame or success is not a winning formula, the correct focus would be “a passion to learn, to be better,” and automatically recognition would follow.

Furthermore, she excitedly reveals “We are working on a record label at the moment. We DO need more platforms for musicians and I want to be involved in the talent hunt”, certainly glad tidings for all the struggling artists out there!

With what she lovingly calls her ‘9-5 job’ at Coke Studio, where she dons multiple hats of lead vocalist/music mixer/composer/trainer of backing vocalists, Zara certainly has her proverbial plate very full.  She has had to forgo giving lessons on classical music at a local school, and privately at home, as it “had become a fish market,” she jests. Her work as a jewellery designer too appears to have also moved to the back-burner for now, she is astounded that we even have even heard of it.

Is that because the music has consumed you? 

“Yes”, she smiles wryly,

“It certainly has”.

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