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In 'Song of Lahore,' Pakistani musicians fight social stigma to play the music they love




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Nijat Ali plays harmonium in Broad Green Pictures release, SONG OF LAHORE.
Credit: Nadir Siddiquiin / Broad Green Pictures
SOL_00018_R Nijat Ali plays harmonium in Broad Green Pictures release, SONG OF LAHORE. Credit: Nadir Siddiquiin / Broad Green Pictures
Nadir Siddiqui
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Nijat Ali plays harmonium in Broad Green Pictures release, SONG OF LAHORE.
Credit: Nadir Siddiquiin / Broad Green Pictures
SOL_00148_R2_CROP Asad Ali with his guitar on the streets of Lahore, Pakistan in Broad Green Pictures release, SONG OF LAHORE. Credit: Mobeen Ansari / Broad Green Pictures
Mobeen Ansari
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Nijat Ali plays harmonium in Broad Green Pictures release, SONG OF LAHORE.
Credit: Nadir Siddiquiin / Broad Green Pictures
SOL_00640 (l to r) Saleem Khan being interviewed by Director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy at Badshahi Mosque in Broad Green Pictures release, SONG OF LAHORE. Credit: SOC Films / Broad Green Pictures
SOC Films
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Nijat Ali plays harmonium in Broad Green Pictures release, SONG OF LAHORE.
Credit: Nadir Siddiquiin / Broad Green Pictures
SOL_00007 Directors Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken on the set of their documentary, SONG OF LAHORE, a Broad Green Pictures release. Credit: Nadir Siddiquiin / Broad Green Pictures
Andy Schocken
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Nijat Ali plays harmonium in Broad Green Pictures release, SONG OF LAHORE.
Credit: Nadir Siddiquiin / Broad Green Pictures
SOL_00003 Director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy on the set of her documentary, SONG OF LAHORE, a Broad Green Pictures release. Credit: Emma Hardy / Broad Green Pictures
Emma Hardy
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Nijat Ali plays harmonium in Broad Green Pictures release, SONG OF LAHORE.
Credit: Nadir Siddiquiin / Broad Green Pictures


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The quest for YouTube notoriety isn't just for teenagers. In 2011, Sachal Studios — a coalition of traditionally-trained musicians in Pakistan — posted a video of their rendition of "Take Five" by the American jazz master Dave Brubeck. The musicians were in search of a wider audience because their own country had become alternatively hostile or indifferent to their work. 

The video was a hit. It earned the attention of Dave Brubeck himself — and then of jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who is also the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Marsalis invited the group to travel to New York City and perform a concert in collaboration with his orchestra. 

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy — who has won two Academy Awards for her short film — and Andy Schocken documented the musicians' journey in "Song of Lahore," which is now playing in theaters.

Obaid-Chinoy and Schocken spoke with The Frame's John Horn about the film and about the musicians' wider significance to Pakistani culture. Obaid-Chinoy, who grew up in Pakistan, reminisced on the social climate that made an organization like Sachal Studios a rarity. 

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

Obaid-Chinoy: There are no formal music institutions in Pakistan. The way music is carried down is from father to son, uncle to nephew, in people’s homes. We had a very vibrant film industry. We had concerts, clubs, and cabarets. On Sundays on the streets musicians played. And then at the very end of the 1970’s, we had a general that took over the country, General [Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq], who decided that the Islamization of Pakistan was very important. Suddenly, the music industry started collapsing.

Because it was considered sinful.

Obaid-Chinoy: Yes. [Zia] closed off all the avenues that existed for musicians, and dried them, so they had no ways of earning money. The film industry collapsed. Clubs shut down, alcohol was banned. Cabarets were deemed illegal. And suddenly this industry that had existed no longer did.

No one ever said, It is illegal to play music. What they said was, If we take away all the avenues that are available to them to play music, no one will be able to listen. So they did it far more cleverly than banning music.

And also musicians are perceived to be in a lower social caste, so there’s a stigma against being a musician.

Obaid-Chinoy: Pop musicians are wealthy. They have this level of protection about them. But these are poor musicians that play instrumental music, and they live in sequestered neighborhoods where people do frown upon music. Where if you hear music, you’ll hear a neighbor — he might just come up to your door and say, This is un-Islamic. I don’t want to hear it.

So something happens in 2004 where a bunch of these musicians found Sachal Studios.

Obaid-Chinoy: Izzat Majeed is the founder of Sachal Studios. He is a philanthropist and a businessman. A Pakistani who lived outside of the country for many years, and came back in 2004. He wanted to preserve some of these instruments and these great masters who were dying. There are so many instruments in Pakistan where people can no longer play them, because the great masters have passed away and not passed it on.

So he came back to try to revive and find an avenue for these musicians to record their music. That’s when he set up a studio in the city of Lahore.

How does jazz fit into the narrative of what the musicians are trying to create?

Andy Schoken: At Sachal Studios they were putting out folk albums, traditional music. [But] they didn’t have a local audience . . . They basically decided that they were going to look West, and find an audience located outside of Pakistan.

In the 1950s the U.S. State Department had a program called Jazz Ambassadors. They sent some of the great jazz masters around the world — Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Dave Brubeck. And Dave Brubeck came through Lahore in 1958. The founder of the studio had been at the concert and he’d always been struck by that. So he thought, why don’t we try to integrate some of these Western harmonies into our music? As a way of keeping our instruments vital, and a way of keeping in touch with our classical roots, but in a contemporary format. So that’s when they first recorded their rendition of “Take Five.”

And what happens when they record a video of this song?

Obaid-Chinoy: They put it on their website, on YouTube — the single goes up in the digital charts. It becomes number one. Dave Brubeck heard this rendition and wrote to them and said it was the most interesting rendition of “Take Five” he had ever heard. And then Quincy Jones wrote to them. Then Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center heard about these musicians, and then invited Izzat to come to New York and figure out how they were going to have a concert and a collaboration.

So they these musicians come to New York. What happens when they go back to Lahore?

Obaid-Chinoy: Firstly, they made headlines. All the newspapers carried articles about them. Suddenly, all the television channels were interested in them. But more than that, I think Sachal always wanted to cultivate new audiences, and they wanted avenues to play their music. And once they went back to Pakistan, they were able to play a concert.

To them it kind of a bigger deal to play Lahore than to play New York because they’re playing for their own people. I remember one musician turning to the other and saying, “I hope somebody comes to the concert today.” And then outside when we walked in, until my eye could see, thousands of people [were] lined up. When the doors opened, and when the musicians walked out, the kind of response — the thunder of applause. So welcoming.

So what’s happening in the nation itself? Is it more accepting of music now?

Obaid-Chinoy: Well, with the Sachal musicians, and the kind of instrumental music they play, I think what they were able to do was make it cool.

But “cool” is still at odds with fundamentalist Islam.

Obaid-Chinoy: So, any music is at odds with fundamentalist Islam. But there is a huge push in Pakistan against fundamentalist Islam, especially in the last 18 months. The number of terrorist attacks have gone down exponentially. A number of avenues have opened up for artists and musicians that didn’t exist before. And I think that if we are able to hold the terrorists at bay, and that fundamentalist ideology, you will see some of this flourish again.

"Song of Lahore" is currently playing in select theaters. This segment was first published in November 2015.



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