(As appeared in India Currents)
“Jab se yeh Taliban aaye hain na, beda gark hogaya hai music ka,” (Ever since the Taliban, it has spelled doom for music). “Mere bête ka keyboard chheena, maara peeta,” (My son’s keyboard was seized, he was beaten up).
The video footage shows a crowd in unrest, then a funeral.
Despite these scenes, the film, Song of Lahore, is not about the atrocities. 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 a musical history, a heritage passed down over centuries and 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,” says 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. Sachal Studios was born and they quietly released some classical and folk albums. It was music in hushed jam sessions at first, and then, it was the music of a 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 glory days and that glorious concert, the team took on Brubeck’s Take Five, 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 shows the string section of Sachal Studios’ Take Five, some 20 musicians in white pathanis playing the violin and bass, both instruments unusual for Hindustani classical. Their rendition of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” becomes a sensation and Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, invites them to perform with at Lincoln Center Orchestra. There are groundbreaking rehearsals fusing the orchestras from Lahore and New York, the trepidation caught on film, with Baqir Abbas, the flautist repeating, “What, we have to start?!!” and Majeed himself saying, “I hope the first day doesn’t turn out to be a fiasco,” Marsalis putting down his trumpet in mild frustration saying, “what do we need to do to get it together, ‘cos we’re going to run out of time.” The last was possibly am indication of the divergent approach of the music cultures. The Eastern musicians are known for taking their time to get into the “zone”, Western musical sensibilities are not afforded that luxury, and have a more “on-demand” approach.
New York Times called the film “Elegant and Moving.” This is underscored by one of the musicians saying, “Pakistani toh musical log hain, terrorist nahi.” And a clip showing them appreciating the street musicians in New York, saying, “These are poor musicians just like us!” As well as behind the scenes footage that shows 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 youtube video showing them perform another Jazz Great- Duke Ellington- is simply, marvelous.
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.