Despite these scenes, the film, Song of Lahore, is not about atrocities. It is about regeneration. It is like a musical phoenix, rising out of the ashes. Released in late 2015, it won acclaim at film festivals and recognition among international musicians. It was even slated to be screened on International Jazz Day in San Jose on April 30th.
Lahore of early twentieth century was a haven and a muse for musicians, artists, and poets. It had musical history and a heritage passed down over centuries. With a thriving film industry, opportunities were great for the legion of musicians that called it home. Then the cloud of religious extremism and political turmoil held the city under siege and the sounds of the tabla no longer drifted through the old city’s bazaar.
“Something had to be done about it,” said Izzat Majeed in the film, with a quiet resolve in his voice. He coaxed some musicians back into picking up their instruments again—behind closed doors. Thus, Sachal Studios was born.
They quietly released some classical and folk albums. It was music in hushed jam sessions at first, and then, it was the music of jazz great Dave Brubeck.
Majeed’s father had taken him to a Brubeck concert in Lahore when he was a child, in 1958. Drawing on the memory of those wondrous days and that glorious concert, the team decided to take on Brubeck’s “Take Five,” a jazz composition by Paul Desmond released in the Brubeck’s 1959 album Time Out, saying “Apne maze ke liye ke yaar, yeh sunte hain, ke yeh kya hota hai.” (Just for fun, let’s try this, what it sounds like)
A clip showed the string section of Sachal Studios’ “Take Five,” with some 20 musicians in white pathanis playing violin and bass, both instruments unusual for Hindustani classical.
Their rendition of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” beame a sensation and Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, invited them to perform “Take Five” at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
Once they arrived, there were groundbreaking rehearsals fusing the orchestras from Lahore and New York. The Pakistani team’s trepidation was caught on film with Baqir Abbas, the flutist, repeating, “What? We have to start?” and Majeed himself saying, “I hope the first day doesn’t turn out to be a fiasco.” At this, Marsalis put down his trumpet in mild frustration and said, “what do we need to do to get it together? ‘cos we’re going to run out of time.” The last was possibly an indication of the divergent approach of the music cultures. Eastern musicians are known for taking their time to get into the “zone,” and Western musical sensibilities are often not afforded that luxury, and have a more “on-demand” approach.
The New York Times called the film “elegant and moving.” This was underscored by one of the Sachal Studios’ musicians saying, “Pakistani toh musical log hain, terrorist nahi.” (Pakistanis are musical folks not terrorists.)
A clip showed them appreciating the street musicians in New York, saying, “These are poor musicians just like us!” Behind the scenes footage focused on a visibly emotional Abbas talking about the making of his flute and his music; the soulful journey of carrying forward his heritage into a legacy. A simply marvelous Youtube video has them performing Duke Ellington, expanding their repertoire.
Despite their rising international acclaim, Sachal Studios remains virtually unknown in Pakistan. How does one keep the fundamental joy of art alive in a “fundamental” world? It is starkly ironic that the former is a sure path to the Divine while the other claims to be one.
Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz and other genres.