The Sachal Ensemble is a group of Pakistani musicians from the city of Lahore, historically one of the great musical centers of the Indian sub-continent. Many of these musicians, or their families, had worked in the South Asian film industry. But that profession has long been in decline: first because of the rise of religious conservatism and the introduction of Shariah law through Pakistan starting in the late 1970s, which shut down the film and concert business; and later because of the influence of the Taliban, which since 2009 has attempted to ban most instrumental music-making in the areas where it holds power.
Izzat Majeed, a Pakistani businessman and music-lover, founded Sachal in 2004. At first he organized recordings of it in Lahore studios, and in 2007 he finished building his own brick-and-mortar studio in the city. His goal was not just to restore a sound, but a context: not just a working ensemble, but an audience, even if he had to go outside Pakistan to find it.
After recording Indian classical and folk albums, Majeed expanded the ensemble’s repertoire to western music, specifically jazz; he started with Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” (His father had taken him to Dave Brubeck’s concert in Lahore in 1958, sponsored by the U.S. State Department.) In 2011, they filmed their version of the song and put it Youtube, where it was seen widely and eventually covered by the BBC. This led to the group’s invitation by Wynton Marsalis to perform at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall in 2013: seven Pakistani musicians with the 15-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, playing some of the musicians’ own compositions as well as Jelly Roll Morton’s “New Orleans Blues,” Lou Donaldson’s “Blues Walk,” and, yes, “Take Five.”
The run-up to that concert later formed part of Song of Lahore, a well-received 2015 documentary about the Sachal project by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken. The concert at Rose Hall was a triumph of preconceived group arrangements and also of spur-of-the moment, individual solos. I reviewed it for the New York Times, and what I remember was its specificity: the idea, and the joyous proof, that music can transcend cultural divisions because of particular elements and impulses, such as four (and five!)-beat rhythmic structures—or, more broadly and metaphorically, improvisation. Though music is political, it can also outlast politics.
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Michael Denning, Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution (London: Verso, 2015).
Howard Medium Mandel, “Amir ElSaffar: Exquisite Alchemist” in DownBeat, January 2014.
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Ben Ratliff teaches cultural criticism at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. He is the author of “Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty” and “The Jazz Ear: Conversations over Music.”