Thursday, July 20, 2017
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Song of Lahore shows jazz triumphing over intolerance (movie review)

One of the many Pakistani jazz musicians from Sachal Studios showcased in the documentary Song of Lahore.

Song of Lahore [2015]
directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken
ByTowne Cinema, April 22-26

The documentary film Song of Lahore is a fascinating mix of endearing commonalities and striking differences. The love of jazz displayed by everyone in this film – whether they live in Lahore, Pakistan, or New York City – brought me into the film and kept me gripped by the story. But the cultural differences and obstacles which the Pakistani musicians face: those left me flabbergasted and shocked.

The film is about the men – most with a long tradition of musical performance in their families – who are part of Sachal Studios, a musical recording outfit in Lahore, and how they used jazz to reach out again into the world and to help revive live music in their own community.

As the film emphasizes, Lahore has a thousand-year tradition as an artistic and musical centre. For many years, it was a centre of film production (“Lollywood”) and of music in Pakistan. In the 1950s and 60s, American jazz ambassador Dave Brubeck performed there to great acclaim.

But in 1977, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq came to power in a coup, and imposed a crabbed and intolerant version of Islam and sharia law on the country. Over the next few years, the film industry, where many of the musicians had worked, were almost completely shut down, and music suppressed.

In the 1990s, after Zia's death, the situation improved, but then got worse again after 2000 as religious extremists, who said that music was “sinful”, began destroying instruments, assassinating musicians, and sending suicide bombers.

One of the most telling points in the film is when one of the musicians explains how he can only play music in a soundproofed room in his house, for fear of bad reactions from the neighbours. Being a musician is considered lower-caste occupation in the country, but “music is in our souls,” he says.

In 2004, millionaire and music fan Izzat Majeed (who had seen the Brubeck concert) founded Sachal to preserve Pakistan's classical musical traditions. The film explains how he brought together former studio musicians, and released several South Asian classical and folk albums – and then had the idea to release an album of jazz standards, arranged for their traditional instruments, including the sitar, flute and tablas.

To everyone's surprise, it took off, especially the video of their version of “Take Five”. Brubeck himself was quoted as saying it was “the most interesting” version of “Take Five” he’d ever heard. A 2011 story on BBC World increased the world-wide interest in Sachal.

Pakistani jazz musicians from Sachal Studios talked about the state of music in Pakistan in the documentary Song of Lahore.The first part of the film is a series of inter-cut interviews with different members of the Sachal ensemble, talking about their history in music and how the tradition of music has been passed down within families – in cases, for seven generations. They're shown playing together and working on new arrangements, and you can see their love of music and jazz as they rehearse. The cinematography in this section is particularly interesting, as one is given a real feel for Lahore and Pakistan through varied shots of the city.

In 2013, a subset of the Sachal Jazz Ensemble (minus the violins) was invited to come to New York City to perform with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by Wynton Marsalis. The second half of the movie follows them to New York, through their discovery of the city, initial discussions, fraught rehearsals, and the final concert.

What I found most inspiring about this documentary was how it exemplified the international nature of jazz – particularly fitting when this film is being shown in Ottawa only a few days before International Jazz Day.

And, in a country constantly torn apart by religious sectarianism, it was hopeful to hear the musicians talk about how they want to change the world's view of Pakistan from a place of bombings and religious extremism to a country again known for its musical talent and heritage.

And top of all that, there's a great deal of fine music in this movie, played with verve and style. It's joyful, fun, and easily jumps the boundaries of culture and geography.

    – Alayne McGregor

Song of Lahore plays at the ByTowne Cinema from Friday, April 22 to Tuesday, April 26.