A jazz song from the 1950s, an Oxford-educated financial advisor and a group of once-celebrated but unemployed musicians — some of whom no longer even owned an instrument — are not the standard ingredients for a global hit. But a viral video of Dave Brubeck’s iconic “Take Five” led to an invitation to perform with Wynton Marsalis’s Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, then to an album and later a documentary titled Song of Lahore by Stanford alums Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken, which chronicled their journey. On November 15, Stanford Live presents the musicians of the Sachal Ensemble at Bing Concert Hall as part of the group’s first tour of the United States.
In their native Pakistan, where Lahore was once at its peak as the home of “Lollywood” — the Pakistani equivalent of India’s Bollywood — a rich musical culture with a determinedly international mix was suddenly made verboten in 1977 with the imposition of Sharia law. Suddenly, an entire population of musicians and people whose livelihood was tied to music were left adrift. Miraculously, over the ensuing years, various members of what was once a large musical aristocracy manage to keep the traditions alive.
Pakistani Philanthropist and music producer Izzat Majeed, whose dream was to revive the soundtrack of his childhood, secretly gathered a group of these musicians at his Sachal Studios, making sure to keep their activities under the radar. “These great musicians were left hungry and jobless,” said Majeed in a recent interview. “We were losing our instruments, losing our musicians, losing our culture —something had to be done about it.”
Initially, Majeed and the Sachal Ensemble focused on the region’s classical and folk music. But when he introduced jazz the musicians “took to it very naturally,” says Majeed. As they searched for a broader audience and looked outside Pakistan, they began to explore cross-cultural versions of Western jazz standards, pop and film classics. It was Dave Brubeck who made a particularly strong impact on the Pakistani musicians during his 1958 U.S. State department tour and his “Take Five,” recorded the following year, was Brubeck’s most well-known recording.
When the Sachal Ensemble musicians posted their version of the Brubeck piece on YouTube in 2011, they had no idea that it would explode internationally with over one million views. It was covered by the BBC, and something about the blend of traditional Pakistani instruments with the undulating curves of a jazz classic created a new sound.
In 2015, the Song of Lahore documentary film was made about their trip to New York to play with Wynton Marsalis at Lincoln Center. And it was that award-winning documentary that brings them to Stanford. It had a particularly strong effect on Stanford Live’s executive director Chris Lorway.
“After seeing the brilliant documentary,” he wrote, “I was struck by two things that are important to consider at this moment: How soft power— like the State Department’s Jazz Ambassadors program — was used in the late 1960s to mitigate international perceptions of racial division and inequality; and how the Lahore musicians’ sometimes frustrating rehearsals with Jazz at Lincoln Center can be seen as metaphor for the immigrant experience, an often-challenging transition into the melting pot.”
When the 10-piece group takes the Bing stage with conventional Western instruments combined with traditional Pakistani ones, they’ll mix traditional Sufi music, ragas and Pakistani film songs (such as ” Ranjha Ranjha,” from the movie Raavan) with uniquely South Asian spins on Western classics. And of course, their distinctive take on “Take Five.” Brubeck, who died in December, 2012, actually got a chance to listen to it, calling it “the most interesting recording of it I have ever heard.”
For tickets and information on the Sachal Ensemble’s Bing Concert Hall performance, visit live.stanford.edu.