Song of Lahore couldn’t be timelier after the tragic events in Paris this week. Then again, you could say Song of Lahore has been timely for nearly a decade, or however long fears about the Middle East have existed. A musical documentary in the vein of the Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom, Song of Lahore shows the power of music as both a restorative for peace, a rebellious cry against oppression, and a global element that unifies us, regardless of ethnicity or location.
The small Pakistani town of Lahore was once a thriving community filled with filmmaking studios and, most importantly, a thriving music scene. The implementation of Sharia law has stifled that voice of musicians, Sachal Studios, are brave enough to keep the music going, trying to blend traditional Pakistani tunes with a more Western aesthetic. A viral video on YouTube gives Sachal Studios the chance of a lifetime, playing alongside Wynton Marsalis at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Lahore is the second largest city in Pakistan, yet hearing, and, better yet, seeing how much has been lost due to radical Islam sets up perfectly illustrates the good works Sachal Studios is doing. We’re reminded of how much better things were “before” as members of the group visit a now defunct movie set, just one of many things stifled due to the new government regime.
Honor and legacy keeps Sachal Studios moving forward, and nearly all the men reference a hope and desire that someone will keep the music playing long after they’re gone. Their constant lamentations of how things have changed certainly gives off the impression they’re all crusty grumps asking kids to get off their lawn, but their drive goes beyond that. One of the men futilely tries to inspire his son to take up the violin before just being proud that his son wants to play an instrument at all, even if it is the rock and roll associated with guitar.
One of the more heartrending moments involves Sachal Studios’ conductor. His father was one of Lahore’s most prominent musicians who never received his due. When the son finally gets his chance to conduct it brings the tears and becomes a true moment of pride.
Originally content to remain obscure bearers of the Pakistani musical heritage, their Pakistani adaptation of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” brings them to the attention of the Lincoln Center jazz band which is where Song of Lahore truly hits its stride. This is Sachal’s chance to finally find the recognition they’ve missed out on, and also show how a love of music transcends any barrier. One of the men even states that he hopes this will show Americans that Pakistanis aren’t terrorists, something that hits us with such an impact in our current times.
The typical culture clashes take effect, all with charm and sweetness. The group strolls through New York’s Times Square and realize that nearly everyone with an instrument is a “poor musician, just like us.” True musical unity comes through in the most unpredictable of places, like the group singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” with New York’s infamous Naked Cowboy.
When Sachal finally meets Lincoln Center’s band a conflict arises in the spontaneous nature of Sachal’s playing which clashes with Lincoln Center’s controlled, formalist style. The fact that both parties can end up making beautiful music together shows the possibilities of our society in microcosm. Directors Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken wisely focus on the performance in its entirety, watching the Sachal players help and guide each other through the pieces – helping someone find the right note or tone. Complimenting them are the Lincoln Jazz musicians, well aware of Sachal’s nerves. By the end, both groups are dazzled by what’s transpired and the audience will be as well.
Song of Lahore will get you moving and, hopefully, hugging someone you wouldn’t expect. A film about differences and similarities all woven together in a lyrical musical tapestry with characters you can root for makes Song of Lahore a tune you’ll want stuck in your head!