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Pakistani Jazz Touches New Chords

Zofeen Ebrahim Apr 11, 2012

The silencing of music in the name of Islam led Pappu to give up the cello and set up a tea stall. But Pappu and other musicians survived the Islamist regime for former dictator Zia ul-Haq and the recent ways of the Taliban to return to the most surprising group of musicians to have emerged over years – on a dusty little street in the Pakistani city Lahore.

Little known at home on a street taken over by car showrooms, Sachal made waves on the international music scene last year with their rendition of the 1959 jazz number Take Five.

Originally by the American Dave Brubeck Quartet, Sachal’s rendition hit the top of jazz album charts on iTunes in Britain and the United States.

It was a 90th birthday tribute to Dave Brubeck. "Listening to this exotic version…brings back wonderful memories of Pakistan where my quartet played in 1958," wrote Dave Brubeck. He found it a "most interesting and different recording" of the original jazz number.

The musicians bring in the cellos and the violins – but also traditional south Asian instruments such as the tabla and the dholak. And the indefinable but pervasive feel of south Asian traditions to jazz – and whatever music they create, or pick and transform.

The musicians from Sachal Studios are now set to perform in London Apr. 17 at a pre-Olympics concert that is a sellout.

Izzat Majeed, a businessman who has put all the money into this labour of love, does not like to label the music produced by the ensemble gathered at Sachal Studios. He won’t even call it hybrid, or fusion. And he is no "crusader" trying to revive music from an era bygone.

At best, Majeed tells IPS, "you can call it contemporary." He points to the maestros gathered at the studio rehearsing in Bossa Nova, a style of Brazilian music that combines samba and jazz.


Majeed, 60, owns the state of the art music studios. His long time friend Mushtaq Soofi, 62, a poet, now retired from state-owned Pakistan Television, has joined him.

As a guitar player strums his strings, followed by the musician on the cello, they are joined by a trio of percussionists on the floor. Using their fingers and the base of their palms, they create intricate beats with the tabla, the dholak and the mridangam. On cue, the solo flutist joins in.

The ensemble gathered this afternoon is perhaps the Pakistan music industry’s crème de la crème. "You can’t get musicians better than these under one roof; Sachal has managed to do that," says Munir Kaukab, the recording engineer.

Between them they produce a mesmerizing track where Brazil meets Pakistan.

"We do what we like," says Majeed. He is not pushed if only a few people listen to them. In Pakistan "jazz has a very small market anyway."

Sachal, inspired by Abbey Road Studios in London, is "reviving old forms by giving them contemporary colour," says Sarwat Ali, a music critic.

The studios shun the commercial. "We don’t work for anybody; we don’t rent the place out to anybody," says Soofi. "Anyone working here is free to work for anyone he pleases." But few would want to leave the equipment and quality at Sachal, says Kaukab.

Amongst the range of music Sachal take up, the sound of jazz is prominent. "Sachal introduced a new format to jazz by introducing eastern instruments that remained true to their traditions," 37-year-flutist Baqir Abbas, who has been playing since he was 12, tells IPS.

Since it began in 2003, the studios gave a new lease of life to dying "studio recording traditions" that prevailed before the computer entered the music world, Abbas says.

"It’s still the only studio in Pakistan where music is recorded in its purest form without computer technology used to tweak it," he says.

As with the music, so with musicians as they prepare for the London concert – Sachal is nothing if not inclusive. Besides the musicians from Pakistan, "we will have about ten to 12 more joining from England, Italy and India," says Soofi.

They will be playing mostly jazz and a version of Brazilian compositions, as well as some traditional Indian (and now Pakistani) raga compositions in jazz style. "We have already prepared about 13 tracks," he tells IPS.

Sachal Studios is now home to many classical musicians who had been lost in the din of digital and electronic music. Here they find music as they would like it – and they find a living.

Violinists like Pappu were particularly hit by the collapse of the Pakistani film industry in the 1980s. The violin went out to make place for rock and pop. When Sachal came on the music scene, they were able to dig out just ten violinists in Lahore; over the nine years since they were set up, they have found more than 30.

"I think this is their greatest contribution and service to our music," Arshad Mahmood, a leading composer who has handled orchestras for nearly 30 years tells IPS.

Sachal Studios has produced more than 30 albums spanning a spectrum of genres from local folk to jazz. The group now needs to "pay attention to the market and make their music accessible to the people," says Sarwat Ali.

The group has been approached by several international filmmakers for a feature film on the studio and on their endeavour to revive classical music in Pakistan. "It’s in the pipeline and we’re working on how best this idea can be executed," confirms Soofi, without giving names. "We’re open to these ideas."

This article was originally published by IPS News.

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