Pakistan’s Sachal Jazz Ensemble rises above the risks in ‘Song of Lahore’

Share via

In a scene from the new documentary “Song of Lahore,” master flutist Baqir Abbas stood on his rooftop, a newspaper report of his musician friend’s murder in his hand. Extremist Muslims had shot to death the guitar teacher, a looming threat for all Pakistani artists.

“This will probably keep happening,” says Abbas in the film. “But I thank Allah that I can express myself through music and not through violence.”

In the documentary, Abbas is part of the Sachal Jazz Ensemble, impoverished, aging musicians who confront the terrorism by capitalizing on a couple of modern-day inventions: American jazz and YouTube.


SIGN UP for the free Essential Arts & Culture newsletter >>

God willing, the entire world will see that Pakistanis are artists, not terrorists.

— Nijat Ali

“God willing, the entire world will see that Pakistanis are artists, not terrorists,” the band’s conductor and co-arranger, Nijat Ali, says in the film.

“Song of Lahore,” by Oscar-winning director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy of Karachi, Pakistan, and Oscar-nominated director Andy Schocken of Brooklyn, has a one-week awards-qualifying release in New York and Los Angeles starting Nov. 13 and opens more broadly in early 2016.


FOR THE RECORD: Andy Schocken co-produced the Oscar-nominated short documentary “The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner” but he is not himself an Oscar nominee.


Obaid-Chinoy discovered the group after “Sachal Studios’ Take Five Official Video” went viral in April 2011, creating a cult following for its sitar-heavy rendition of Dave Brubeck’s jazz standard.


The song, which features a range of traditional Pakistani instruments, topped the iTunes charts and prompted Brubeck himself to call it “the most interesting and different recording of ‘Take Five’ that I’ve ever heard.” Soon jazz performer Wynton Marsalis was calling with an invitation to play Lincoln Center with his orchestra.

“Initially we had no plan,” said Obaid-Chinoy in a call from Karachi. “I just wanted to capture the musicians, their lives and their struggles and see where the film would go.”

Following the musicians from Lahore to Manhattan in late 2013, Obaid-Chinoy and Schocken scrambled to shoot the unfolding drama as it became clear that bridging the cultural divide demanded far more of the Lahore players than everyone expected.

The Pakistani musicians didn’t speak English or read music. The star sitar player couldn’t keep up. The ensemble had to perform compositions they hadn’t rehearsed. With days before their performance in front of thousands of discerning jazz fans, the Lahore players were pulling all-nighters trying to translate Marsalis’ notes into something they could understand.

“The stakes were so high,” said Schocken in a phone call from the Indianapolis Heartland Film Festival. “These musicians had very little experience performing jazz or even listening to jazz. They immediately went into rehearsals with a 15-piece orchestra who were masters of the craft. … It’s such a courageous thing to do. Even getting past the dangers they faced in Pakistan. The musical challenge they took on coming to New York was enormous.”

Risking lives


“Song of Lahore” is the narrative of a lost generation of musicians that echoes themes in Wim Wenders’ 1999 Oscar-nominated documentary on Cuban musicians, “Buena Vista Social Club.”

The striking difference is the brutality Lahore’s artists faced for nearly 40 years and the cultural and psychological toll their underground existence took on their art. Through jarring news clips, personal accounts and amateur cellphone video, the co-directors show how the Sachal musicians were risking their lives to preserve an integral part of their culture.

In Lahore, mobs routinely beat up musicians on the streets, destroying their instruments and forcing Abbas and his fellow players to perform largely for one another in soundproof rooms or under the watchful gaze of private guards.

“Lahore is a much safer city than most [in Pakistan],” said Obaid-Chinoy. “The tentacles of the Taliban do appear every so often. You do hear of them leaving leaflets, warning people. …Everything seems OK until it’s not OK. And it only takes a second for it to change.”

It wasn’t always that way. Obaid-Chinoy grew up with stories about Pakistan’s halcyon days after World War II, when the nation’s film industry was thriving and large orchestras were needed to create soundtracks. Musicians played in the streets and nightclubs and cinemas were part of everyday life.

“The Pakistan I inherited was very different,” said Obaid-Chinoy, 36. “My generation hadn’t seen an orchestra or an ensemble like that.”


The tentacles of the Taliban do appear every so often ...Everything seems OK until it’s not OK. And it only takes a second for it to change.

— Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy

In clips from Pakistan’s brutal 1977 military coup, the film shows Gen. Zia-ul-Haq’s chilling justification for the crackdown. Some Muslim sects consider creative expression contrary to the teachings of Islam. In one scene, a man is strapped to a board and beaten with a pole as a crowd swarms around him.

“We started out with an open hand of love and affection for the people of Pakistan,” Zia-ul-Haq says in the film. “But then I find at times the squeeze has to be applied. So now I’m trying to close the hand gradually to apply the squeeze where it is necessary.”

Zia-ul-Haq’s regime during the 1980s made it dangerous to hold public concerts and the recording industry fell apart. Classically trained musicians took jobs as rickshaw drivers and shopkeepers to survive. In the 1990s, during Benazir Bhutto’s era, musical performance tentatively resurfaced again, only to die another death with the rise of the Taliban. And yet music played on in secret.

“Even without the support and patronage of a successful film industry (like in India), our musicians managed to evolve and survive,” group sound engineer Sameer Khan said via email. “However it seems people are becoming too reliant on computers for creating music and it is our sincere hope that they won’t ignore our time-honored musical heritage and instruments.”

By the time Obaid-Chinoy arrived at Sachal Studios, the musicians were faced with the sad truth that though they could revive the music, their audience had withered away. Their South Asian folk and classical recordings were largely ignored in Pakistan.


Musicians’ rise

Sachal Studios founder Izzat Majeed, a philanthropist who’d grown up during Pakistan’s cultural heyday, suspected Western audiences were one way out of obscurity. A fan of American jazz, Majeed had the group record standards since the structure was similar to that of Pakistani ragas and allowed for a lot of improvisation. It posted its “Take Five” video with modest expectations.

After the viral video and Marsalis’ invitation, Obaid-Chinoy recruited Schocken to help shoot the musicians as they prepared for the U.S. She hoped he could neutralize some of the gender politics she had faced during the first year filming the group.

Obaid-Chinoy was conspicuous as a woman in the smoke-filled rooms where the all-male ensemble traded riffs and stories. Though she shared their language, culture and religion, they held her at a polite distance, adhering to cultural norms that often kept women behind veils and closed doors.

“A lot of them were very proud and didn’t want to show me their poverty and their struggles,” said Obaid-Chinoy, a documentarian who became the first Pakistani to win an Oscar in 2012 for her short documentary “Saving Face,” about Pakistani women disfigured by acid attacks.

Though Schocken faced his own considerable language barrier, his presence as an outsider actually helped, giving him access to the musicians’ sparsely furnished, often overcrowded homes, sometimes with their wives present.


Today, the musicians are celebrated by strangers on the streets of Lahore and have even performed publicly there to standing-room-only crowds. They’ve held concerts in India, London and France, and a tour is planned for early spring.

Next year, Universal Music Classics will release a companion album to the film titled “Sounds of Lahore,” featuring the Sachal Ensemble performing Pakistani and Western hits, including those of Bob Dylan, George Harrison and even Michael Jackson. Joining them on the album are a roster of Western performers such as Sean Lennon and Jim James of My Morning Jacket.

“Their whole agenda was to build an audience for their music,” said Obaid-Chinoy. “They’ve started that process of bringing the next generation of listeners to their music. That’s the first step.”