Erasing borders with jazz

Song of Lahore

Directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken


Song of Lahore

Directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken

Cinecenta, University of Victoria

May 17 to 19, 2016

This documentary opens on a very sad note, as the camera follows some Pakistani  musicians – artists who all learned at the knee of a father or uncle –  through the ruins of the once vibrant Lahore music scene. After independence in 1947 tabla, flute and sitar players, violinists and guitarists enjoyed fame and thrived, making music for the Bollywood film industry. In the cold war years, an American program of jazz ambassadors, including Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and other greats, introduced the subcontinent to a form of music that was similar to their own centuries’ old instrumentation. Improvisation came naturally to them and the rhythms were not hard to match.

Then in 1977 came General  Zia, Sharia law and suppression of music and all the other arts. The Taliban only made things worse. At the time this film was made, musicians were still playing in semi-secret in Pakistan’s second largest city. And they feared a complete loss of a proud and complex musical tradition. It would be like losing your language.

As we hear from Saleem Khan, son of Namdar Khan, considered the country’s finest violinist, things had come to such a pass that instruments were broken beyond repair and in scarce supply. No musician could make a living with his art form. But in 2004 Izaat Majeed pulled together seasoned players and started the Sachal Studios for recording music. Returning to the jazz they’d heard as young men, the players recorded Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” on tabla drums, Indian keyboard. flute and sitar. It went viral.

Next came an invitation from Wynton Marsalis to perform with his band for a special concert in the Lincoln Center program “Jazz at Lincoln.” In one scene we’re in the grimy lanes of Lahore and in the next six brown guys are strolling through Times Square, jamming with the Naked Cowboy.

Conductor Nijat Ali, who loses his father and mentor during the course of the film, has to struggle to bring off this unusual merger of East and West, but as Marsalis says, musicians will always come together. What started as a lament becomes an uplifting story of how art overcomes difference and conflict in a vivid documentary that recalls Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club. The closing credits roll over images of the musicians finally getting to give a concert before a huge audience in Lahore.

Photo credit: Frank Stewart


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