As noted in a previous post, music provides the sounds of life for many of us. For the listener, music has the ability to transport to another place or experience and can also provide a frame for events and times. The listener might be passively engaged but is still engaged. For the artist, however, music is obviously more personal. It is a reflection of the artist’s personality, experiences, emotions, travels, and society. In many ways, music transcends the individual artist – or even a group of artists – and creates an image of his/her society. The documentary film Song of Lahore provides an example of the ways in which this occurs and the impact this has on the artist and society. It also presents insights into how different artists and musical genres can come together to craft music that is truly reflective of a global art form.
Song of Lahore tells the story of the Sachal Jazz Ensemble, a group of musicians playing traditional Pakistani instruments for not only traditional music but also songs from other genres. In particular, the group performed a rendition of the jazz classic Take Five using traditional instruments that garnered attention around the world through social media. Eventually, this performance came to the attention of Wynton Marsalis, who extended an invitation to the group to come to New York City and join the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in a performance at the famed Lincoln Center venue.
The film presents the stories of several key members of the group and explores how music has shaped their families and their lives. Through these presentations, it becomes clear that music has been a constant source of pride, identity and struggle for these talented artists and for Pakistani society in general. The film notes the prior existence of a booming musical industry in Pakistan and its destruction at the hands of changes in government and social mores regarding the appropriateness of music generally. This has a devastating impact on society in terms of cultural expression and enjoyment. It has a more personally devastating impact on individual artists, such as those in the Sachal Jazz Ensemble, who saw their craft, livelihoods and family traditions swept away as a result.
Persecution for musical performances created an environment in which many artists stopped performing and others performed in secret, constantly aware of the risks to their safety. While the political and social climate may have eased somewhat in terms of its restrictions on music and musical performances, the film documents the ways in which musicians are still subject to societal ridicule and threat. For example, one of the performers notes that his grandson was targeted for violence while walking through the street carrying a musical instrument.
News of the invitation to New York City is viewed as a fantastic opportunity for the Sachal Jazz Ensemble, although the leaders are aware that they must be perfect in their performances. They begin a strict practice regimen that is not well received by some and, along the way, there are decisions to drop members from the traveling group. This is not an easy decision but it is one made in order to allow the Sachal Jazz Ensemble to perform at its best for its members and as a representative of Pakistan. Throughout the practices and once the group arrives in New York City there is a sense that the performance is about far more than just highlighting an individual group.
On arriving in New York City, the group takes the opportunity to enjoy the major tourist sites before settling down to a grueling practice schedule with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. This is necessary to coordinate the performance of Take Five, which is performed by musicians from both groups. Coordination of this particular aspect of the performance is quite difficult and results in many artistic changes and disagreements, demonstrating differences in style and expectations within the groups and between the groups.
There is perhaps no better microcosm of cultural blending and the problems faced when completing it. And yet, completed it is, and with remarkable harmony and grace. The performance is an overwhelming success, hailed by critics and audiences as well as by members of the groups themselves.
Overall, Song of Lahore presents the many different layers of meaning held by music. It offers a glimpse into a society in that has devalued music and artists but in which a core group of artists has maintained an attachment to and love of its art form. It also allows an understanding of how music can serve as a cultural bridge between different societies, allowing artists to speak the same language and audiences to hear the same passion in music regardless their nationality or location.