From Lahore to Lincoln Center: a Musical Journey

The Sachal Jazz Ensemble after its performance that followed a Nov. 4 NYC screening of "Song of Lahore" (Photo by Suzanna Masih for Voices of NY)

The Sachal Jazz Ensemble after its performance that followed a Nov. 4 NYC screening of “Song of Lahore” (Photo by Suzanna Masih for Voices of NY)

Contemporary American jazz fuses seamlessly with Pakistani classical music in Academy award-winning documentary director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s latest offering, “Song of Lahore.”

The feature length documentary that Obaid-Chinoy co-directed with Brooklyn-based director Andy Schocken has earned accolades on the film festival circuit this year. It had screenings this week in New York City ahead of its theater release on November 13.

The film documents the attempts of Lahore’s trained musicians to keep classical Pakistani music, with its distinctive original melodies arranged on tabla, sitar and harmoniums, alive in the face of growing disinterest among national audiences and the threat of creeping religious extremism.

A few musicians, some of whom had followed their fathers and grandfathers into the profession, banded together in 2004 under the banner of Sachal Studios. The group made several recordings and studio albums, but failed to garner much attention for their work nationally. Then, in 2011, an album of covers of western jazz arranged and played on the tabla, flute and sitar, shot them to international fame.

Their rendition of the jazz classic “Take Five” (released in 1959 by the Dave Brubeck Quartet and written by Paul Desmond) took the Internet by storm and landed their album on iTunes. In 2013, Wynton Marsalis invited the Sachal Jazz Ensemble to play alongside the band at Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in New York.

“Song of Lahore” shows the group’s triumphant journey from their Lahore studio to New York to play at the prestigious venue.

For the performers, the stakes are high and emotions run deep as they prepare to perform on a world stage. Their moments of frustration and uncertainty at the rehearsals are brilliantly captured in the film and leave the audience worrying for them and then cheering at their success.

The film received standing ovations at its screenings and was followed by live performances by the Sachal Jazz Ensemble of their renditions of “Take Five,” “Pink Panther” and “Lahore Jazz.”

The filmmaking process

Obaid-Chinoy, who is based in Karachi, remembers hearing her grandfather’s stories of a Pakistan with lively street music, numerous jazz groups, and busy cabarets.

But the Pakistan that she grew up in during the 1980s had changed, as the government’s adoption of strict Islamic law led to the closing of performance venues and the decline of arts and culture. In the movie, one musician even speaks of practicing his art very quietly, so that the neighbors would not hear.

“When I heard about this group of musicians who were preserving Pakistan’s traditional instruments and experimenting with western harmonies I was very interested in documenting them and telling their stories,” said Obaid-Chinoy.

“The musicians are masters of their instruments, they’ve had a tough life and they have seen better days. You learn humility from them and you learn that music has no language,” the director said about her experience working with the Lahore-based artists.

Obaid-Chinoy said one of the challenges of producing the film was getting the performers to open up to her and let her tell their stories. “The musicians have pride. They didn’t want to show their poverty and they didn’t want to show their struggles, so to get access to that was a little difficult,” she said.

For co-director Schocken, the biggest challenge was the language difference. “The success and failure of any documentary is based on the level of intimacy and emotional connections that you can create with the characters,” he said. “That’s very difficult when you don’t speak their language.”

But Schocken said the musicians were welcoming and soon he had settled in with them. “I had very little understanding of Pakistani music before I got there. So it was a great experience for me to learn about it and explore it and have these incredible musicians be my guide.”

The documentary showcases a non-violent side of Pakistan and speaks volumes about its rich culture and tradition which artists like Baqar Abbas are trying to preserve.

The 39-year-old flutist from Sachal Jazz Ensemble has been involved in the music industry since 1987 and has worked with several prominent Pakistani singers, classical and pop.

“My only hope is that this film helps change the negative perspectives Western nations have of my beautiful country,” said Abbas.

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