By Maliha Rehman
It wouldn’t be Coke Studio (CS) if it didn’t run into controversy. Every season. Without failing.
However, with CS in its 14th season now, the people behind the country’s most famous music show probably didn’t expect to be assailed by a social media tussle right after the launch of its very first song. Hypnotic, absorbing, whirling in a blend of color and melody, ‘Tu Jhoom’ skyrocketed into becoming an immediate hit, pairing the powerful vocals of Abida Parveen with Naseebo Lal. The song came layered with beautiful nuances, packing in the punches with powerful lyrics and hinting at a hit season ahead. It also gave testament to the creative prowess of Zulfiqar Jabbar Khan, aka ‘Xulfi’, the newest producer to be helming the show.
‘Xulfi accused of lifting Coke Studio’s ‘Tu Jhoom’ melody,’ declared a headline in the Express Tribune on January 18th, 2022.
Nirmala Maghani, a struggling singer based in Umerkot, had declared that a part of the CS hit had been lifted from a melody that she had composed. Talking to me the following day, she said, “I sent a demo to Xulfi sir on 14th June 2021 in the hope that he would include me in the new CS season. There was no response from him. When ‘Tu Jhoom’ was released, I recognized the dhun (melody) being used in it to be mine. I called up my brother and asked him to listen to the song and he agreed with me.”
In a Twitter post on 20th January 2022, Nirmala highlighted that it was not her wish to be paid in anyway by CS. She just wanted to be credited for her melody.
میرے گانے کی دھن جو میں @cokestudio کے پروڈیوسر زلفی کو بطور نمونہ جون 2021 میں بھیجی تھیں چوری کر کے کوک سٹوڈیو کے گانے "تو جھوم" میں استعمال کی جا ر ہی ہیں۔ مجھے کوئی پیسے نہیں صرف کریڈٹ دیا جائے۔ میری آواز بنیں 🙏#NirmalaMaghani
— Nirmala Maghani (@NirmalaMaghani) January 19, 2022
A question of May … and June
In response, CS has released evidence of a Watsapp conversation between Xulfi and CS’ associate producer Abdullah Siddiqui dated May 2021, where Xulfi hums a few strains of ‘Tu Jhoom’ in a voice-note, asking for Abdullah’s opinion. It must be noted that this response came a day following Nirmala’s revelation to media.
An official statement by Xulfi declared:
“… I produce and collaborate in the spirit of inclusivity and my work with Coke Studio holds the same philosophy. My work is not borrowed or without credit, given that what I share with the world is work that relies on the very essence of partnership and collaboration. I hope this to be evident in my entire body of work produced in my career.
When we set out to make this season, our goal was to make Pakistani music heard worldwide. Our aim was to present our music, our young talent and our icons in a way that shows the world what we are capable of. What we stand for as a nation. Our aim was to create a cultural moment of glory for Pakistan.
Coke Studio is Pakistan’s biggest cultural export and connector of hearts and souls; it has consistently brought people together for art, progression and positivity. And that power is very dear to me and one that I’ve absorbed heavily this season. I don’t take the fabric of Coke Studio lightly but rather wear it as a cloak of responsibility and pride.
And indeed, I look forward to continue working with our brilliant artists, from all over the country; for they truly are the present and future of Pakistani music!…”
When asked about the evidence from CS dating back to May, while her own demo was sent to Xulfi in June last year, Nirmala responded, “We will just have to look at the phone forensic data in order to decide. The assessment will be made in court.”
Lahore’s Yousuf Salahuddin, a supporter of local musical talent, stands by the argument that Nirmala’s tune has been lifted by CS.
CS’ creator and long-time producer Rohail Hyatt, on the other hand, pointed out in a Tweet that ‘… songs in the same raag always sound similar…’
A lack of understanding about raag based folk tunes usually ends up in controversy with someone claiming their idea has been copied. Songs in the same raag always sound similar. Even the melodies can be near identical. Lyrics matter.#TuJhoom#cokestudio14#AbidaParveen#xulfi
— Rohail Hyatt (@rohailhyatt) January 19, 2022
But can unsolicited musical content be legal grounds for plagiarism?
While a fleeting observation may make one feel that the argument for plagiarism stands strong, there are certain nitty-gritties that need to be observed. CS producers receive hundreds of demos daily from aspiring musicians hoping to become part of the show. Is it fair to assume that these producers will listen to each and every one of these demos?
Most significantly, does Nirmala have sufficient legal grounds to stand on when she sent unsolicited musical content to a music producer? It is a musician’s responsibility to protect his or her creative content by registering it for copyrights before sharing it with external parties. When musical content is sent without any legal protection to external parties, the musician simply loses out on the legal grounds to protect his or her creation from potential plagiarism. This is a learning for any musician wanting to share his or her original work with music producers in the future.
Rohail Hyatt shares his experience, “When producing Coke Studio I would receive hundreds of demos from musicians hoping to be part of the show. These demos should not have been sent to me without me asking for them because if one of them turns out to be similar to something new that I am releasing, I could be accused of copying. That’s not fair.”
Nirmala also states that after listening to ‘Tu Jhoom’, she sent messages across to Xulfi, professing that her ‘dhun’ had been used and that Xulfi did not respond. This could have been deliberate but it must be remembered that on the day of the song’s release, the producer was most likely flooded with messages – did he really see Nirmala’s message and ignore it or did it miss his notice?
Regardless, even if she has no legal framework to fall upon, CS and Xulfi are to blame if the tune is, indeed, plagiarized.
More folk tunes!
This leads us to the question as to whether a tune can be considered plagiarized if it has roots in folk tradition. Nirmala’s tune, with its uncanny similarity to the initial chords in ‘Tu Jhoom’, has been followed up by the unearthing of other tunes that are just as similar.
One of them is the Punjabi folk song ‘Zulf da kunddal khullay na’ by Inayat Hussain Bhatti, which can be heard in this YouTube clip which was uploaded 11 years ago:
Another, very similar, tune is ‘Akheer’ by London-based Punjabi Sikh singer Juggy D which can be heard in this clip from four years ago:
If Xulfi had happened to hear either of these songs, he should have given credit to them. However, in the case of folk tunes, often the music has simply been part of tradition for eons, passed from generation to generation. In such cases, there is no one single source that can be given credit. Perhaps, then, acknowledgement could have had been given by stating that the song is inspired by folk music. Either way, this weakens Nirmala’s particular case.
Here are a few examples of similar sounding melodies with the same sort of phrasing as #TuJhoom
Just emphasising the point that folk melodies can sound very similar if they belong to the same raag.
— Rohail Hyatt (@rohailhyatt) January 20, 2022
It all sums to up an unfortunate controversy. Nirmala Maghani may be genuinely distressed. On the other hand, Xulfi may have genuinely not heard her demo and simply created a tune that occurred to him, perhaps one that has been around for ages and simply seeps into the subconscious. There may possibly be no legal grounds to strengthen the claim that the tune in ‘Tu Jhoom’ has been ‘lifted’.
“When producing Coke Studio I would receive hundreds of demos from musicians hoping to be part of the show. These demos should not have been sent to me without me asking for them because if one of them turns out to be similar to something new that I am releasing, I could be accused of copying. That’s not fair.” – Rohail Hyatt
Beyond courts and legal small print, however, the world now revolves around judgments passed by the media, based on declarations made by Twitter and stories that are shared and reshared, becoming ‘viral’. Could media, then, also pause and assess the situation at hand? Is it fair to beat the drum and declare plagiarism when, perhaps, we may simply be looking at a case that has been misunderstood?