Sunday, 24 April 2016

Doing the subcontinental

A couple of years ago, I accidentally came across an extraordinary video. (I never actually look for these things; they always show up when I'm supposed to be doing something else.)

It's David Brubeck's "Take Five", but played on subcontinental instruments. I liked it so much that I shared it twice on Facebook.

It turns out that the viral video begat a documentary film and when it showed up on the calendar for the Bytowne Cinema, I knew I had to go!

I love that it's PG-rated for "violent images and smoking". (The violent scenes were from newscasts.)

The film opens with a man singing a haunting song, accompanying himself on a hand-pumped harmonium.  This is Nijat Ali, and the film introduces us gradually to him and several other Pakistani musicians struggling to keep their music alive in Lahore.  We learn that Lahore once had a thriving musical scene until a truly creepy guy named General Zia-ul-Haq took over and it was decreed that music was anti-Islamic.

Zia-ul-Haq eventually had his day, but it wasn't long until the Taliban stuck in their oars.  As a result, the musicians featured in this documentary were careful to play only in places with sound-proof walls.  Traditions were dying - it was hard to earn a living, and hard to train up sons (never daughters) in music.

Finally, a wealthy financier named Izzat Majeed, who remembered the "Jazz Ambassadors" visiting Pakistan when he was a young boy, made a bid to re-establish Lahore's reputation as a musical centre.  He remembered hearing Dave Brubeck all those years ago, and establishing the Sachal Studios and gathering musicians, recorded "Take Five", and put it on YouTube.  Brubeck, who heard this version before his death in 2012, sent a message expressing his admiration.

Not so long after that, they heard from Wynton Marsalis.  The second part of the film follows a select group of half a dozen musicians representing the Sachal Studio, as they make a great cultural leap in travelling to New York and performing with Marsalis and his jazz orchestra.  At Lincoln Center.  The men don't speak English nor read music.

The video below is one of the numbers they played, but is not from the film, but from a performance in Paris in August 2013.  (Which is odd, because as far as I can make out, the Lincoln Center performance took place in November 2013.)

There are three videos with the Wynton Marsalis Quintet and the Sachal Jazz Ensemble on Marsalis's YouTube station, but a fellow named Hassan Khan has a myriad of Sachal Orchestra videos, including several numbers with Marsalis, including this gem:

I was a bit worried about an aging violinist interviewed in Lahore in the first half of the film.  He wistfully tells us at the close of the documentary that the string section wasn't able to travel to New York. However, he is getting more chances to play; Sachal Orchestra has its own YouTube channel as well, and they've been recording their own versions of pop and rock tunes, among other things.

The documentary's co-director is Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who is Pakistani herself and an Oscar-winner for her documentary Saving Face. The story of how a woman manages to make a film about an all-male group of musicians in a profession where women, if they participate at all, participate only as singers would make a documentary in itself. (You can read about the challenges here.)However, that's not just a Pakistani problem. You constantly hear Marsalis address his orchestra as "my brothers", because there's not a single female musician among them.

The music's great, all the same.

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