At the beginning of “Song of Lahore,” we meet a group of Pakistani musicians who create classical music. We learn that their music is not fully appreciated in their country, where violence and artistic oppression has weighed heavily on their work. The musicians created Sachal Studios, a space for creating and recording their work, in Lahore, the second largest city of Pakistan. One of the musicians suggests they infuse jazz into a recording, since jazz has the same improvisational qualities as their classical style of music and ensemble performing.
Sachal Studios gained acclaim and notoriety in 2011, when they performed an unusual variation on “Take Five,” the classic jazz piece by The Dave Brubeck Quartet. We see the head of Sachal Studios reading his musicians a note of praise he received from Brubeck and declaring, “this is quite the compliment.” Considering that Brubeck recorded the piece in 1959 and was praising the innovation of the Sachal Studios’ cover, indeed, it was a big compliment.
We witness the group’s sudden rise of fame, as they fly to New York, rehearse with no less than Wynton Marsalis and prepare for a concert at the Lincoln Center. While it’s clear early on that the concert footage at the end will be victorious (just as the Sachal Studios group entering The Big Apple represents a career victory lap), there is suspense over whether their style will mesh with Marsalis’ American musicians.
Directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken, “Song of Lahore” is a tribute to the longevity of both this older group of musicians and the type of music they shape. One of the group members mentions that Pakistani music tends to skewer younger, more electronic-styled pop, an observation that holds up for music lovers in most countries. There’s fascinating footage of a concert in which security holds watch over “a very popular” young singer, in a venue that appears poorly attended.
If you’re unfamiliar with recent and older history of Pakistan, some of the first act will go by in a blur. While the point is made that the country, and artists in particular, have suffered great persecution, the figures and incidents referenced (both verbally and in too-brief clips) should have been allowed a greater focus.
The best moments are observations granted by a cameraman with fly-on-the-wall access to the rehearsals and the private lives of his subjects. We see a father giving his son music lessons and driven to tears as he explains that this is a legacy he is passing down, without knowing how much time he has left to live. There’s also a musician who creates his flute by hand, explaining the intimate relationship between the instrument and his body. Another musician declares, movingly, that he wants to show the world that the people of Pakistan are artists, not terrorists.
It’s fascinating to see the musicians from Pakistan learning to cohere in their musical style and rhythm with Marsalis’ group. It’s also hard not to share the joy the Sachal Studio musicians feel as they freely walk through Time Square, noting street artists who “are as poor as we are!”
Once we finally get to the climactic concert, in which two different worlds and genres of music converge, I wanted to applaud as audibly as those in the concert hall. The music is glorious and the joy and gratitude these artists feel towards their art and lives is inspiring.
Song of Lahore plays at 5pm on Sunday, November 29th, at the Maui Film Festival First Light Academy Screenings at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center.