The documentary Song of Lahore chronicles the surprising journey of an ensemble of classically trained Pakistani musicians to their performance at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The film is as touching as it is educational.
Since the Mughal era, Lahore had been internationally renowned for its music. Movie studios employed orchestras to record film scores during the golden age of Pakistani cinema, until a military coup in 1977 shuttered the studios and banned most public musical performances.
Even when restrictions eased in the 1990s, young people turned toward rock ‘n roll and away from traditional music. The Taliban’s rise in influence again drove musicians out of the public sphere.
Fearing the loss of his culture, Izzat Majeed established Sachal Studios in Lahore as a place for musicians — not just players of traditional instruments like tablas and sitars, but guitarists and violinists as well — to jam together. Ignored by local audiences, Majeed made a bold suggestion: “Let’s try to understand jazz.”
What makes the suggestion especially audacious is that the membership of the Sachal Ensemble skews old, as evident by the high number of white-haired members. The notion of ditching fifty years worth of training in a particular style in order to learn a new one is remarkable and inspiring.
Majeed himself was introduced to jazz in 1958, when his father took him to a performance by Dave Brubeck as part of the US State Department’s Jazz Ambassadors program. One theme that’s repeated throughout Song of Lahore is the way politics can shape culture. During the Cold War, the United States used jazz as a weapon against communism.
Famed trumpeter Wynton Marsalis appreciates the historical connections between American jazz and traditional music in Pakistan. Jazz was born out of the persecution of African-Americans, he explains, just as the Sachal Ensemble perseveres in a country where musicians face violence from Islamic extremists.
A YouTube video of their infectious rendition of Brubeck’s iconic hit “Take Five” garners the Sachal Ensemble international interest and an invitation to perform with Marsalis’ big band at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The second half of the film focuses on that performance and the rehearsals leading up to it.
Even though the performance is assured to happen, the rehearsal scenes are tense. The Ensemble seems unsure whether to look to Marsalis for cues or to their own arranger and conductor, Nijat Ali. When they ultimately take the stage in front of a packed house, their performance provokes tears of both pride and relief.
Directors Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken keep their story focused, giving some social context but prioritizing this particular moment in the lives of these musicians. Showing the rough patches during rehearsal with Marsalis’ band highlights the practical difficulties of their mission.
Of course, all of the music in the film is tremendous.
Song of Lahore is a wonderful example of not only the power of perseverance but of adaptability. When passion compels you to do something, find a way to get it done.