Let’s Talk About Cake’s Music

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From Cake's Official Instagram Account

Chances are that you’ve already heard about Cake, and how much of a step forward it is for Pakistani cinema. We’ve been excited about it for a very long time. In fact, in his review, Nusair called it the best Pakistani film in recent years. While I haven’t seen it yet, I can believe this. Right from the onset, it was obvious that the people behind this film had latched on to something. Unlike the plethora of bawdy, big-budget claptrap, these guys obviously knew what they were doing. And this extends into every part of the film; including the music. So, as we’ve already written about Cake the film, I thought we would show the soundtrack some love today.

 

The Lighter Side

When you watch the trailer of Cake, it becomes clear that it deals with some grim themes. Familial strife, mortality, loss, sibling rivalry and feelings of abandonment all come into play. And yet, what is also obvious is that all of these themes have been melded into a light-hearted film. Perhaps this is an indication of Asim Abbasi’s maturity as a filmmaker, but he doesn’t use melodrama to convey debilitating emotions. He uses a simple set-up, and a simpler story.

The reliance on a simplicity to convey strong themes is also present in some of the songs. When you listen to ‘Bol’ or ‘Meri Duniya’, you almost mistake them for pop ballads. That is, until you pay attention to the poetry, and its metaphysical leanings.

Yes, this is easy listening; the kind you want to sing along with, or play as you drive. But, it is also questioning the banality of our everyday, and ponders over the meaning of being alive.

The vocals also work surprisingly well.

Natasha Humera Ejaz captures the serenity of ‘Bol’ perfectly. For anyone who isn’t familiar with her, this is a great introduction.

But Saif Samejo really surprised me. I have loved most of his work. But whatever I have heard has leaned towards Sindhi, Sufi music. So for him shift so effortlessly into a completely different avatar is incredible.  It should also be pointed out that his band The Sketches composed the music for the film. So we really have to thank them for this lovely soundtrack as a whole.

 

From The Earth

But, as the film itself is tied so closely to Sindhi culture, folk music couldn’t not be in the picture. It is presented through some rich vocals, and composition that never compromises on indigenous talent.

‘Sajan Mo Khay’ is reminiscent of nostalgic, folk songs, that lament the separation of lovers. It is melancholic, mystical and reverberating with the kind of gravely vocals that have given folk music its quintessential flavour. ‘Sartyoon’, which recounts the immortal love story of Sassui Punhu, is contemporary Sufi music at its best.

The fact that both numbers lean on Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai’s prolific  words, gives them the spiritual bite that all great Sufi songs need.

It would not be fair to mention the songs, without mentioning the wonderful folk singers who lent their voices. All of them, Shamu Bai, Rajab Fakeer, Zanwar Hussain, are rare gems.

Bhagat Bhoora Lal, though is a national treasure.

I’m going to make a tall claim, so everybody sit down, but he has the perfect voice for folk songs. I haven’t heard vocals fit the ebbs and flows of Sufi music this well since Saieen Zahoor and Akhtar Chanal Zehri (I warned you).

There is, of course, another reason why I am in love with the soundtrack of Cake.

Now, travel back with me to some ten years ago. A time when, save for a few Atif Aslam and Ali Zafar hits, our music scene wasn’t making many waves. And then, enter Coke Studio.

If you remember, an instant reason for its appeal was how it put our folk music on stage. Refusing to adorn it with any of the earlier gimmicks, the Studio made sure that the melody reigned supreme. So imagine my bemusement, when Pakistani cinema decided that it would showcase all genres, except this one. I don’t really need another reason to love Cake, but that it rectifies this wrong is much appreciated.

 

The Thing About Heritage

It feels strange admitting this, but I have spasms anytime someone touches a classic. See, the people who produced musical masterpieces were on another level. So, if you’re going to touch their work, you need to be really talented. Or, you happen to be really conceited.

And every time I hear the warped version of a classic, my inner purist can’t help but yell, “that’s not how you do Dhammal!”

Sometimes, as was the case during Coke Studio season 10, my external voice also chimes in.

And ‘Tiri Pawanda’ is a classic on multiple levels; let me explain. First, it was written by Shaikh Ayaz; one of the most important and revered Sindhi poets of all time. Because he wrote in Urdu and Sindhi, his influence reached many parts of the region. He was also revolutionary figure across literary circles, adorning his works with themes of liberation and revolution. Because of this, he faced many trials, including imprisonment during the Zia Ul Haq regime.

This poem, is an incredibly nostalgic piece. The first verse can literally be translated to, ‘when the red flowers come back to the branches, then we shall meet again.’ It speaks of separation, heart-ache and the hope of meeting again, during better times.

The words were also immortalized by another Sindhi legend; the prolific folk singer Alan Faqir. His version is incredibly beautiful in its simplicity. Accompanied by a single instrument, it has a haunting beauty.

But…Why Cake Got it Right

So, when someone opts to not only sing, but also change this song, I am immediately on edge. Honestly, I was genuinely worried that I would not like something about Cake.

But, Saif Samejo has so much appreciation for Sindh’s folk heritage, that I accept his version as an homage. Partly, this is because of what he has done with Lahooti; essentially picking up the ball dropped by the Studio.

But also, because he fused the poetry of Shaikh Ayaz with that of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai.

Shaikh Ayaz was the person who translated Shah Abul Latif Bhitai’s ‘Shah jo Risalo’ into Urdu. Essentially, encouraging a generation of non-Sindhi speakers to embrace his work. And according to friends, he looked up to him as a “spiritual mentor.” So much so, that he wanted to be buried close to the seminal poet. Which he was.

If anyone else had made the decision to merge poetry from across two centuries, I would have seen it as mere coincidence. But because of his understanding of folk music, and history, I can’t see this as a coincidence. I see this as a tribute, to more than one great man.

 

The Art of Symbiosis

In his review, Nusair mentioned that everything about Cake, including the music works really well together. I am going to argue, that this is because the central conflict is at the heart of everything. Cake has a very strong message about coming home, and the pull of one’s roots.

This incidentally is also a theme that many folk songs, poems and stories focus on.

So, while I can applaud the soundtrack for giving our folk music a worthy platform. I also have to acknowledge that what it really did was ensure that the story was given the perfect accompaniment.

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