In “Song of Lahore,” a skillfully crafted documentary from Academy Award winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and tyro filmmaker Andy Schocken, a small group of Pakistani classical musicians must travel to New York to gain some measure of the respect and acclaim their ancestors enjoyed as inheritors of a centuries-long tradition of artistic excellence. With the imposition of sharia law in the late 1970s, Pakistani orchestras were disbanded and musicians vilified, even killed. But when an amazing recording of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” on traditional Pakistani instruments goes viral, East meets West in improvisational harmony. A fascinating study in cross-cultural pollination, “Song” positively sings.
The first part of the documentary introduces the talented members of the Sachal Studios, a recording outfit founded in 2004 by Izzat Majeed, who rounded up unemployed master musicians who began to rehearse and play together. The filmmakers eavesdrop on intimate musical interludes at home and in the workplace, where it becomes immediately apparent that these forgotten maestros consider themselves representatives of families who have practiced their art for centuries, passing on their musical knowledge from generation to generation.
Schocken and Obaid-Chinoy isolate specific instances of intergenerational exchange. A wooden box-accordion player, the leader of the ensemble, feels tremendous pressure to live up to his beloved father’s legacy, while a violinist bemoans the fact that he cannot get parts for his instrument and must suffer through his tin-eared son’s inept butchering of a once-proud tradition. Footage of Lahore’s famed movie orchestras, which in their heyday boasted hundreds of top-flight musicians, alternate with shots of abandoned sets quietly deteriorating in the sun.
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Sachal released several classical and folk albums, but it was not until they recorded an experimental album that combined their Southern Asian improvisational style with jazz — to which they had been introduced by Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and other Ambassadors of Jazz in the 1950s and ’60s — that their music made a sizable impact on digital charts internationally, while remaining completely ignored on their own turf. One cut on the experimental album in particular, a peculiarly exuberant spin on Brubeck’s “Take Five,” made waves worldwide.
Invited to join Wynton Marsalis’ group for a concert at Lincoln Center, select members of the Sachal Studios (the violins stayed at home) feverishly begin to rehearse for the Gotham gig, trying to familiarize themselves with a large number of a jazz standards. Once in New York, they happily wander Times Square, listening appreciatively to a sidewalk drummer (“He’s a poor musician, just like us!”) and join in a duet with “The Naked Cowboy,” Manhattan’s tourist-friendly, guitar-strumming singer, dressed only in American-flag briefs and a Stetson.
At first the stylistic gap between Marsalis’ brass-heavy band and the Pakistani musicians seems to present insurmountable problems, from the huge sheets of music employed by the Sachal musicians to the sheer difference in size and sound between the two groups. The Pakistani flute and tabla players fit in immediately, their music expertly dancing around the classical jazz riffs with unrestrained exuberance. For others, though, certain rhythmic changes and the Pakistanis’ relative unfamiliarity with some of the tunes pose serious obstacles. The sitar player proves unable or unwilling to adapt his instrument to the needs of the ensemble and exits the scene, to be replaced at the last minute by a New York-based sitarist.
After a week a fairly inchoate rehearsals and scenes, where the filmmakers are clearly stressing the musicians’ temporary failures to better ratchet up suspense, the combined cross-cultural orchestra takes the stage in extended segments of the Lincoln Center performance. Obaid-Chinoy and Schocken prove eager to their docu into an outright concert film, and as the camera rhythmically cuts between the darkly clad Marsalis boys and the white-robed Pakistanis, their contrapuntal styles naturally bringing down the house.