Why We All Finally Woke Up to Nescafé Basement


To be fair, Nescafé Basement has given us some memorable numbers right from the start. That being said, I think we have to admit that the kind of applause they are generating now is new. It has taken them some time. Both to carve out their own niche amidst the ever fizzing cola war, and to get people to pay attention.

But, slowly yet surely, they’ve grabbed on to our collective attention. We are all wide awake, and listening.

Which is good enough for everyone else. But you see, I love pondering over everything that led up to a success. Which is what I shall be doing, right now. Buckle your seatbelts kids, because we’re going to go over how Nescafé  Basement finally got everyone’s attention.

The Coke Studio Comparison: Sleeping Next To a Giant

When Nescafé Basement started, the Coke Studio machine was well oiled and churning out hits. To be fair, the new program was not really like the Coke platform. Zulfiqar Jabbar Khan (aka Xulfi) as a mentor and producer was the biggest distinction. Yes, he is an experienced and multifaceted musician, like Rohail Hayat and the Strings duo.

But, as a former member of bands like EP and Call, his was a more recent vantage point. Thus, what he could, and even wanted to, bring forward would be more unadulterated, fresher even. In fact, that seemed to be the unsaid Nescafé Basement tagline. They wanted to bring amateur talent onto a large platform, and foster it.

But because of its disparate parts, the can of worms of comparisons was cracked open. This was essentially a studio-style musical program, produced by a popular name and funded by a popular beverage company. Media outlets and social media pundits were quick to latch on to the alleged similarities.

Some were pretty harsh. For example, while reviewing Nescafé Basement season two’s first episode, Rafay Mehmood had this to say.

“While Nescafé Basement has been compared to Coke Studioby critics and fans on several occasions. The fact remains the show will always be a high-school version of the latter.”

But even tamer comparisons, like a simple ‘who did it better’ post didn’t help the budding program.

Coffee Not Soda

Let’s all just accept that Nescafé Basement is not, and never attempted to be, a Coke Studio clone. Yes, the similarities in terms of materialistic, stylistic elements are there. But I don’t think that they merit a comparison.

In my opinion, Nescafé wanted to use the Coke Studio form, rather than formula. It wanted a program that focused on live studio recordings (a fancified jam session if you will). But, it wanted to stay away from the celebrity culture, which Coke Studio always pandered to. To give credit where it is due, initially Coke having prominent names on the roster seemingly served an important purpose. They seemed to use celebrities to generate buzz, and then use this buzz to highlight lesser known, even obscure talents. Thus began a tradition of showcasing lesser known bands, well-respected but not famous folk singers, and even traditional instruments.

But recently, a more shameless pandering to celebrity hype became painfully evident. Recent seasons of the Studio didn’t use fame as a means to an end. Rather, they relied on the obsessive fans of popular acts to make up for the lack in quality. Nothing showcases this more aptly than the release of ‘Ko Ko Korina’. Their version of the classic song was a train wreck. And the unfunny punchline was that people would ignore this, because a local sweetheart was performing it.

In contrast, Nescafé Basement seemed to prioritize talent, no matter how unknown. Even early misses highlight this. Yes, many of the platform’s earlier songs are rough around the edges. But it says something about their intentions, that they would put virtually unknown talents at their centerstage. For them, the goal was always mentoring young talents to realize their potential. Sometimes, even at the risk of not producing commercial hits.

Secret Ingredients

While the program faced early hurdles, it was still able to garner a following. And I put this down to three things. Firstly, it was able to revamp known and loved songs the right way. (Put the angry comments away; I’ll explain this in a minute). Secondly,  Xulfi Khan’s ability to fish out potential stars is second to none. And finally, because they avoided the need to appeal to celebrity culture, they appealed to talent-purists.

And now, let’s discuss each element, in laborious detail.

Classics Done Right

Do not get me wrong; there were misses. For example, their version of ‘Akhiyan’ isn’t remembered fondly by anyone.

But, I also think that team Nescafé understood the essence of a good homage. See, if you are going to tackle a classic, repeating everything the original did, is a pitfall. Because you will invariably pin yourself up against someone potentially more talented, and definitely more iconic, than yourself. And no intelligent artist would ever do that willingly.

Instead, a great homage will try to capture the essence of the classic. To capture the feeling that a beloved song evoked. Nescafé Basement proved that it at least had the potential to do this via ‘Tere Ishq Mein’.

The original, by the iconic Alan Faqir and the evergreen Mohammad Ali Sheikhi, captured Sufi folk traditions perfectly. It spoke of the love for The Divine, and the unbreakable bond between The Creator and His creations.

The Nescafé Basement version didn’t even try to mimic the original. But it conveyed the same ethos, quite beautifully.

Stars in The Making

A constant feature of the program is Xulfi Jabbar Khan’s involvement in selecting and mentoring talent. And even early seasons made it clear that he can spot diamonds in the rough. The best example of this (until the recent season) was Soch the band.

In season one, Nescafé Basement introduced us to two young men with a knack for lyrics, and incredibly emotive vocals.

Adnan Dhool and Rabi Ahmed were stars, they just needed to be guided onto their paths. Their original version of ‘Awari’ albeit a bit rough around the edges, showcased their sensitive brand of music.

And it caught the eye of some prominent people. What followed was a hop-skip ride to Bollywood. I think most would agree that ‘Awari’ was the best thing about the Ek Villain soundtrack. 

Talent First

This is actually something that I touched on earlier, but I’ll just say one more thing about it. See, we as an audience are becoming incredibly jaded when it comes to corporate sponsorships and talent. Because we see it so very often, we are becoming very good at separating pure merit from propagated stardom.

In this regard, Nescafé Basement played a risky card early in its run, which may be paying off now. They generated a reputation for working with lesser known artists. Some would argue, that they put talent above viewership. What this means, is that an audience that is now frustrated with celebrities that can’t sing, is veering towards it.

Nescafé Basement Season 5: What Went Right

Now, I will argue that what Nescafé Basement’s latest season did right, was that it capitalized on its strengths. And then, added some extra flourishes that really set the ball rolling.

More Classics, Also Done Right: Mehbooba  

Haroon Rashid was the heartthrob of the masses. And his ‘Mehbooba’ was a pretty loved single. You’ll notice that the Nescafé version follows the same ques that its earlier revamps got right. The focus isn’t copying the original, but rather using multiple elements to create a similar ambiance.

To this end, the composition deserves special credit. Every element in this production works in tandem to create a modern take that is still faithful to the original. Also, that every instrument and each musician is given a moment to shine (and named in the credits) is heartening.

More Stars in The Waiting: Syeda Hadiya Hashmi

This tiny powerhouse has already taken the internet by storm. But I feel like I can’t discuss Nescafé Basement without dedicating an entire section to her.

At this point, it is pretty redundant to talk about her talent. It literally brought a grown man, who has worked with many talented artists, to tears.

The world seems to have appreciated her chills-inducing vocals. But if you haven’t experienced the brunt of her talent yet, then welcome to earth. And also, listen and weep.

What I particularly love about ‘Bol Hu’ is that it combines Adnan Dhool’s assured vocals with this exciting young talent.

(Side note; can all movie playback singing contracts just go to Soch? Filmmakers across Pakistan, please?  It’ll save you guys a lot of time, and simultaneously give me songs that I actually like.)

Here again, Nescafé Basement played to its strengths by introducing us to an exceptionally talented performer. By virtue of her appeal, a new audience has latched on to the program itself.

Still Prioritizing Talent: Shahzad-e-Ali and All Kids Band

I realize that little Hadiya and ‘Bol Hu’ have garnered a ton of attention. But a glance through the roster affirms that there is a lot more on offer.

In particular we have Shahzad-e-Ali with a soulful original. And, I wouldn’t be surprised if it followed the ‘Awari’ route  to stardom; it really is that good.

The talented man behind the song is also a rare find, with a clarity of thought that some can only dream of. And I really hope that he is allowed to keep sending his incredible vocals our way.

But, the song that really showcases the harboring of talent is actually one that isn’t as well-crafted.

‘Pyar Diyan Gallan’ by the All Kids Band is not perfect. But in a way that is what makes it so special. Because, like the Nescafé Basement days of yore, it showcases a commitment to talent. Particularly young talent.

This song may not be perfect. But these kids are obviously gifted, and at a very young age. Some of them literally have teeth missing. So, it is wonderful to see a platform offering them an opportunity, and committing to them. To let them do their thing, even if it is a bit wonky, is the true triumph.

Picking Up What Coke Studio Dropped

Okay, so you remember how I mentioned Coke Studio’s golden age. About how they’d showcase obscure musical instruments, and the musicians attempting to preserve them? Yeah, well it isn’t doing that anymore.

(This could of course change. Rohail Hyatt may in fact be coming back.)  

At any rate, this is where Nescafé Basement seems to have discovered a new niche. By bringing forth talent rooted in tradition, they may have struck another chord with the public.

Their artist profiles, particularly when focusing on the likes of Jamil Ayyan, are inspired.

Because not only do they showcase acts that we’re all bound to fall in love with. But they also appear to be attempts at preserving traditional instruments. Which, is what will make us fall for the program itself.

The New Tagline: #JaagnaTohParega

This shouldn’t matter, but it does. A musical platform should ideally be only about the talent on show. But, in this digitally constructed landscape, how you market your platform matters.

And Nescafé Basement has taken some steps in a promising direction in this regard.

The new look, a clearer focus on how they want to present themselves, and that infectious hashtag have all helped.

In conjunction they have presented Nescafé Basement as a youthful, more vibrant platform. One that is perhaps a bit more daring, more experimental. And every so slightly, less afraid to not appeal to celebrity culture.

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