Modern day Pakistan, to most Americans, doesn’t exactly seem like the home of a flourishing arts and cultural scene. Indeed, after a 1977 military coup that put in power a dictatorship set on “cleansing” Pakistan’s cultural landscape, and after the emergence of the Taliban in the 1990s, music and film in Pakistan collapsed.
But it wasn’t always this way. The city of Lahore, near the Indian border, was a great art center for 1,000 years, and was home to Lollywood—the Pakistani equivalent to India’s Bollywood.
Born in Lahore in 1950, investor-turned-philanthropist and music producer Izzat Majeed sought to revive the thriving music industry of his youth. He created Sachal Studios, a place for traditional musicians and singers to perform, and its offshoot, the Sachal Jazz Ensemble. Majeed had been heavily influenced by American jazz, after hearing American pianist Dave Brubeck perform when he was 8 years old.
The Sachal Jazz Ensemble—which features musicians playing cellos, violins, hand drums, guitars and sitars—got a lucky break in 2011 when they were discovered on YouTube by trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis. Their interpretation of Brubeck’s Paul Desmond classic “Take Five” went viral. Today, the YouTube video has almost 1.2 million views. (Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLF46JKkCNg)
The video led to an invitation to collaborate with Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. A 2015 film by two-time Academy Award-winning director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken called Song of Lahore documents the group’s trip to New York, as well as its rise from the ashes of a Taliban-destroyed country.
“We want to show the world that Pakistanis are artists, not terrorists,” Sachal Ensemble conductor Nijat Ali says in the film.
The Saratoga connection? When Elizabeth Sobol, current president and CEO of Saratoga Performing Arts Center, was the president and CEO of Universal Music Classics, she received a link to the Song of Lahore trailer in an email, and was moved by the story of the musicians. (See the trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=reMlqvb_WAA)
She and her colleagues at Universal set out to create a companion album fusing the traditional Pakistani sounds of the Sachal Ensemble with western songs about peace, love and understanding. The album, also called Song of Lahore, features Meryl Streep, Sean Lennon, Wynton Marsalis, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Nels Cline of Wilco and Madeleine Peyroux, and was produced by Grammy Award-winning producer Eli Wolf.
Long after Sobol arrived in Saratoga for her new position at SPAC, a New York agent who was organizing the first U.S. tour of the Sachal Ensemble contacted her. Within a day, Sobol, in collaboration with Phillip Morris of Proctors Theatre and Teddy Foster of Universal Preservation Hall, had confirmed two Capital Region performances by the Sachal Ensemble—one at Proctors on Oct. 28 and one at SPAC’s Little Theatre on Oct. 30. The film Sound of Lahore will also be screened at Proctors on Oct. 24 and at Bow Tie Criterion Cinemas in Saratoga on Oct. 29.
For tickets to the Ensemble’s two sensational one-night performances, visit proctors.org or spac.org. Tickets at SPAC’s Little Theatre start at $40.