Film doc­u­ments a Pak­istani jazz tri­umph in the US

The National - News - The Review - - Culture - Bhanuj Kap­pal

July 5, 1977. Pak­istan’s Gen­eral Muham­mad Zia Ul-Haq ap­pears on na­tional tele­vi­sion to an­nounce that “the gov­ern­ment of Mr [Zul­fikar Ali] Bhutto has ceased to ex­ist”. The 11 years of mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship that fol­lowed – with its em­pha­sis on the “Shari­sa­tion” of Pak­istan – dealt a mas­sive blow to the coun­try’s cul­ture in­dus­try.

Mu­sic was de­clared sin­ful. The film in­dus­try which em­ployed many of the coun­try’s clas­si­cal mu­si­cians col­lapsed amid a flurry of bans. Many of Pak­istan’s great mu­si­cians gave up their in­stru­ments for work as driv­ers or tea-sell­ers. The ones that per­se­vered strug­gled with poverty and prej­u­dice.

“Mu­si­cians here are seen as be­long­ing to a lower caste,” de­clares flautist Baqar Ab­bas in Song of La­hore, Sharmeen Obaid-Chi­noy and Andy Schocken’s en­gag­ing new doc­u­men­tary that was re­leased on­line and had a lim­ited gen­eral re­lease last month.

The film fol­lows seven clas­si­cal mu­si­cians in La­hore who come to­gether to per­form and record at Sachal Stu­dios, founded by Iz­zat Ma­jeed in 2004 to re­claim this for­got­ten part of the coun­try’s cul­tural her­itage. The early scenes out­line La­hore’s mu­si­cal his­tory, with anec­dotes of the pre-1977 hey­day il­lus­trated by a wealth of archival pho­tos.

The open­ing half is som­bre and melan­cholic, as the mu­si­cians give tes­ti­mony about the Zia years and the strug­gles they con­tinue to face, in­clud­ing Tal­iban re­pres­sion. The film­mak­ers craft in­ti­mate por­traits of each artist, tak­ing us into their homes and map­ping out the trans­fer of mu­si­cal knowl­edge from one gen­er­a­tion to an­other.

Their mu­si­cal lin­eage is a source of both in­spi­ra­tion and heavy re­spon­si­bil­ity for many. Ar­ranger and con­duc­tor Ni­jat Ali is try­ing to fill the mas­sive boots of his fa­ther Riaz Hussain, who passed away while the doc­u­men­tary was be­ing shot, and oc­ca­sion­ally grap­ples with self-doubt.

Else­where, vi­o­lin­ist Saleem Khan is driven to tears by his son’s lack of in­ter­est in prac­tis­ing his in­stru­ment, who also looks like he doesn’t know how to re­spond.

The po­lit­i­cal back­ground to the cen­sor­ship of mu­sic is also cov­ered, if obliquely. Ab­bas re­flects sadly on the massacre of a bus­load of Shias, and the news that a gui­tarist friend has been shot dead by mil­i­tants. In an­other scene, the mu­si­cians dis­cuss the con­se­quences of ex­trem­ism. “There used to be so much life here, now ev­ery­one’s scared to come out,” one says. The Sachal En­sem­ble re­leased a few clas­si­cal and folk albums but got no re­sponse. Then Ma­jeed hit upon the idea of get­ting the mu­si­cians to in­ter­pret jazz stan­dards through a clas­si­cal lens, in an at­tempt to gain a global au­di­ence. The group’s reworking of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five was a break­through record, get­ting them fea­tured on the BBC and an in­vi­ta­tion to per­form at New York’s Lin­coln Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts with trum­pet leg­end Wyn­ton Marsalis and a jazz orches­tra.

This is where the film picks up pace, as the mu­si­cians wres­tle with ex­cite­ment and anx­i­ety. The re­hearsal scenes are taut with ten­sion, the Pak­istani mu­si­cians in­tim­i­dated by Marsalis’s big band. The group’s sitar player can’t rise to the oc­ca­sion, so he has to be re­placed at the last minute by a New York-based sitarist.

The whole en­ter­prise teeters on the verge of col­lapse. These scenes are in­ter­cut with charm­ing in­ter­ludes of the en­sem­ble walk­ing through Times Square and jam­ming with the in­fa­mous “Naked Cow­boy”. When they come across a busker play­ing paint cans re­pur­posed as drums, one of them laughs, say­ing “He’s a poor mu­si­cian just like us.”

In the end, of course, they pull it off. The one song that is shown here in full is so won­der­ful that you wish you could see the whole per­for­mance. Both sets of mu­si­cians laugh and nod at each other on stage, de­lighted with what they’ve man­aged to ac­com­plish. The doc­u­men­tary ends with the group back home, elated to fi­nally have achieved some recog­ni­tion, and pre­par­ing to per­form in La­hore for the first time. It’s a fit­tingly op­ti­mistic end to a film that is as much about the power of hope as it is about mu­sic.

Bhanuj Kap­pal is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in Mum­bai who writes about mu­sic, protest cul­ture and pol­i­tics.

There used to be so much life here, now ev­ery­one’s scared to come out Pak­istani mu­si­cian in the doc­u­men­tary, Song of La­hore

Rizwan Tabas­sum / AFP

Thou­sands of Pak­ista­nis took to the streets of Karachi on June 23 to mourn the death of one of their most fa­mous mu­si­cians, Amjad Sabri. The Sufi singer was shot dead by Tal­iban gun­men on June 22 in what many see as an at­tack on qawwali mu­sic.

Hiroyuki Ito / Getty Images

The Sachal En­sem­ble per­form with Wyn­ton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lin­coln Cen­ter Orches­tra in New York in 2013. From left, Baqar Ab­bas, Na­jaf Ali, Ballu Khan and Rafiq Ahmed.

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