Arts & Theater

New film and live performance bring Pakistani jazz to Harris Center

Song of Lahore follows several Pakistani musicians, and asks if there is still room for them in a society roiled by conflict. Featuring the music of the Sachal Jazz Ensemble, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis.
Song of Lahore follows several Pakistani musicians, and asks if there is still room for them in a society roiled by conflict. Featuring the music of the Sachal Jazz Ensemble, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. Photo by Mobeen Ansari - © Broad Green Pictures

Echoing the trajectory of many American jazz musicians who sought the respect and financial support in Europe that eluded them in their homeland, the Sachal Ensemble came to New York from Lahore, Pakistan, in November 2013 to perform with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra.

The birth and evolution of both the group and its incubator, Sachal Studios, is captured in the fascinating documentary “Song of Lahore.” The film screens with free admission Sunday at the Harris Center in Folsom, and the current 10-member Sachal Ensemble will perform live Nov. 18 at the same venue.

The film is about waning tradition, religious extremism, self-discipline, artistic freedom, cultural fusion and family honor. It folds a 1977 military coup, the establishment of sharia, the musical labors of love of millionaire investor Izzat Majeed and the life-altering attendance of 8-year-old Majeed at a 1958 Dave Brubeck concert sponsored by the State Department’s Jazz Ambassadors program into an exhilarating, organic underdog story.

With once-flourishing film score opportunities and local fiscal support dwindling, Majeed developed Sachal Studios as a concept in 2004 to keep Lahore’s generational musical legacy alive, and added an actual building in 2006. The Ensemble survived in relative obscurity as the Sachal Studios Orchestra until releasing its 2011 debut album “Sachal Jazz - Interpretations of Jazz Standards & Bossa Nova.”

The mashup of Pakistani classical and folk instrumentation and Western jazz and pop covers included a YouTube version of the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s classic “Take Five” that went viral and garnered praise from such luminaries as Quincy Jones and Brubeck himself.

Director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who won Oscars for her film shorts about acid-attack survivors and honor killings, took notice and began shooting footage of the Sachal Studios denizens for a future project.

“She was filming but did not know necessarily if she was making a film,” said co-director Andy Schocken during a recent phone call. “It was an interesting enough subject that she wanted to get some footage, but it wasn’t until they were invited by Marsalis to come to Jazz at the Lincoln Center that she realized this was going to be a feature film and she would need some assistance. That’s when she reached out to me (through a mutual friend) and I got involved.

“Even just the logistics of filming there were really difficult. You are talking about a place that does not have enough of a power supply to keep the electricity on all day, so the electricity would be on for an hour and off for an hour, and that’s causing problems for lighting, or air conditioning, or battery charging.”

“When Sharmeen is working in Pakistan,” added Schocken, “one of the issues she faces is gender dynamics. This film is about this group of men and there are sometimes difficulties that female filmmakers in Pakistan have in building rapport and gaining intimate access to men. She was able to build a very strong relationship with them in certain ways. In other ways, I think I was able to build a closer relationship.”

Nijaat Ali, who was interviewed by phone from Lahore via an interpreter, is prominent in the film along with his father. He also conducts the Ensemble’s live performances, which include the use of tabla, sitar, dholak, naal, gharra, keyboards, sarangi, guitar and flute.

“The most important message in the film that I would like people to take home,” said the 39-year-old composer, “is that Izzat stepped in and got these musicians together who ... had stopped almost playing music and were doing other jobs. He got this together, built a studio, gave them new hope that their music would live on.

“We’ve come from such difficult circumstances and yet beat the odds, and now we perform all over the world.”

Last year the Ensemble also released its “Song of Lahore” album that includes collaborations with Wilco’s Nels Cline, Sean Lennon, Meryl Streep and others.

“I really didn’t have the sort of childhood that a child normally has,” Ali said. “I was given a violin at the age of 4 and told to sit down with the clock and do 12 hours of practice and things like that. My father would sit among the masters of that era and they were all quite old. Therefore, I learned a lot of humility because I grew up with them around. And the biggest thing that he taught me was you could only make good music if you are a good person.”

Song of Lahore: Documentary Film

When: 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 29

Where: Harris Center, Folsom

Cost: Free Admission


Sachal Ensemble: Song of Lahore Concert

When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 18

Where: Harris Center, Folsom

Cost: $12-$54