Song Of Lahore – The Sachal Ensemble (2016)

Song Of Lahore – The Sachal Ensemble (2016)

A compelling documentary about a Pakistani jazz group!

Studio: Broadgreen Pictures 94174630
Directors: Andy Schocken & SharmeenObaid-Chinoy
featuring The Sachal Ensemble and guest performers – Wynton Marsalis and The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video 1.78:1 for widescreen 16:9, color
Length: 82 minutes
Ratings:    Audio: ****    Video: ***1/2       Overall:***1/2

It’s not often that a musical documentary tackles complicated socio-political issues and provides great music. But Song Of Lahore does exactly that. This is a tale of a Pakistani musical group, older in age, trying to navigate the intrinsic need to reconcile their artistic vision and heritage (with a decidedly American jazz influence) with the overall restrictive cultural limitations of Sharia law. There is a seventies montage that provides the historical context for this complicated narrative. Bitterness doesn’t overtake the life of Nijat Ali as he tries to manage the music group at The Sachal Studios. Following the previously mentioned Sharia law in the seventies, the ties that bind have been breached. The struggle is with reviving this special music and band and extricating them from generational conflicts that serve as a sub-text for the subject of music revival and the purity of tradition. It provides an early backdrop, and the flow of the movie is uneven, if not slow.

Things come to a tenuous coherence when The Sachel Ensemble is invited by Wynton Marsalis to perform at Lincoln Center. After perfunctory surreal Manhattan scenes (including meeting the infamous Naked Cowboy), things pick up. Backstage at Lincoln Center, Wynton Marsalis and the jazz band greet the Pakistani visitors for rehearsal. And here is where the core of musical culture is revealed. There is an inherent, joyful camaraderie between the players. On an amusing note, the “alternate” sheet music leaves a quizzical look on Marsalis’ face.  And the Sachel Ensemble appear equally uncertain about the first 24 bars. It all gets worked out.  At Lincoln Center they show a small two-song excerpt that captures the evening. A sitar-lead on “Take 5” with flute (instead of saxophone) showcases the Middle Eastern interpretation of an American jazz classic. There is also a “native” bass instrument that like others is not specifically identified. Then, The Lincoln Center crew breaks into big band grooves (with a nice Afro-Cuban vibe), and the guests join in. There are several interesting facets including a double-flute run and an awe-inspiring percussion jam. The unbridled enthusiasm for music and performing is more than palpable.

When the group returns to Pakistan, the somber narrative picks up again with a cemetery scene. But there are notable exceptions. The ensemble seems elated over the newspaper accounts of the appearance at Lincoln Center. They gleefully celebrate and point to the front page photos. The film ends with the Sachal Ensemble preparing for three first “hometown” jazz concerts. The video quality of the DVD is good, but not exceptional. The 5.1 mix is superior, but there is limited music to show it off. It is a documentary with a strong message. [There is also a CD available of the music only…Ed.]

—Robbie Gerson

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