Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary feature Song of Lahore is about honour of a different kind than that of her award-winning A Girl in the River. Lahore has been a major South Asian cultural centre for well over a thousand years. And the Pakistani film industry during the years that Zulfaqir Ali Bhutto was thriving, and providing work for many of Pakistan’s traditionally trained musicians. The military coup staged by General Zia in 1977 changed all that – and the establishment of sharia law and the increasing islamization of the state saw the decline and virtual destruction of the film industry and the musicians it employed. Song of Lahore traces the revival of this rich musical culture by looking at the musicians who were most affected by it, as they share their memories and their music with a younger generation who have no idea of what they have been denied.
One of the challenges of returning to the musical fold, of course, is that the destruction of the film industry also resulted in the destruction of the audience – and these musicians respond in the most creative way possible to begin to rebuild an audience, knowing that the younger generation is more interested in western beats and instruments. They decide to make their audience a global one, incorporation Western musical principles into their own traditional one, writing new compositions that speak to traditional lovers of music, as well as to a newer, global one.
The situation is not totally rosy, however; the musicians describe playing in soundproof rooms, in keeping their status as musicians from their neighbours, lest they be seen as low-lifes; their re-interpretation of Dave Brubeck’s jazz classic “Take Five” is tempered with the news that with the arrival of the Taliban in Pakistan, musicians are being targetted for reprisal – you only have to look at the most recent case, the shooting of Sufi singer Amjad Sabri last month, to understand that music in Pakistans remains a fragile, risky business.
Song of Lahore’s most fascinating moments, however, occur once the Sachal ensemble comes to the attention of jazz great Wynton Marsalis, who invites them to perform with his band in New York. The joys of being given such a great opportunity give way to the tensions of learning, and quickly, how to adapt to a Western working style – and to have Western musicians adapt to Pakistani ways of working, as well. The result is a remarkable concert experience, and, for the Sachal ensemble, a great feeling of honour.