Remember the buzz of excitement generated by that first Buena Vista Social Club album in 1997 and the award-winning Wim Wenders docu-film that followed? Music producer Nick Gold had invited guitarist Ry Cooder to Havana to participate in a collaboration between musicians from Mali and Cuba. Visa problems meant that the African musicians could not be there so Gold and Cooder decided, instead, to work with local musicians on an album of Cuban son music. The rest is history.
Song of Lahore by The Sachal Ensemble and guests has something of the same vibe to it. Produced by Grammy Award-winner Eli Wolf and with arrangements and musical direction by Michael Leonhart, the album is a 5-star classic in every sense. There is no doubt that it is pitched at Western tastes but that’s ok. The Sachal Ensemble gets a new and appreciative audience and we get to hear tunes, many of which we already know, covered in way we have not heard before.
For generations Lahore was a city of great culture and learning famed, especially, for its wonderful music. In the 1960s and ‘70s it became the Lollywood to Mumbai’s Bollywood. This was good news for those virtuoso musicians steeped in the tradition, including those of Sachal Studios. In 1977 a conservative Islamic regime came to power and introduced strict Sharia Law. Music and film were all but proscribed.
At the beginning of the new millennium The Sachal Ensemble producer Izzat Majeed did like Jake and Elwood and got the band back together. With their audience long gone he needed a clever calling card to announce the group’s return. A life-long fan of the Dave Brubeck Quartet he had the musicians do their own take on Brubeck’s Take Five. YouTube did the rest. The video of the band performing the tune went viral. Jazz legend Wynton Marsalis liked what he heard and invited the Pakastani musicians to join him in New York for a collaborative one-off concert.
The movie Song Of Lahore follows the journey of the Sachal Studio musicians from their hometown of Lahore to New York City, their interaction with Wynton Marsalis and the musicians of the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra, and the performance that ensued.
The album of the same name is a stunning East-meets-West companion piece as the Ensemble is joined by a host of guest musicians and singers. It’s hard to pick a selection of highlights as pretty much every track is on the money – even Meryl Streep coming across all Lauri Anderson on the spoken-word ‘Speak’!
The album opens with Duke Ellington’s Blue Pepper (Far East of the Blues) featuring the trumpet of Wynton Marsalis. Blues/soul singer Susan Tedeschi’s gloriously world-weary delivery of Dylan’s ‘Shelter From The Storm’ is buoyed along by partner Derek Truck’s slide guitar and the Ensemble’s dynamic percussion section. Allen Toussaint’s ‘Yes We Can Can’, featuring singer Bilal, is elevated from being just another funky New Orleans workout to a celestial multi-cultural joyride. ‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’ gets the kid gloves treatment from Madeleine Peyroux. The song segues effortlessly into a lushly orchestral Mai Ni with Baqir Abbas on vocals. This and a couple of other traditional numbers brought to the table by the Ensemble sit perfectly well with the more familiar songs here although it is likely the latter that will garner most airplay on day-time radio. ’I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’ is a song most associated with Nina Simone. Singer La Marisoul of La Santa Cecilia treats the song as if it were a just-conceived thing giving it an authoritative and fresh take. Brazilian sensation Seu Jorge gets the karmic vibe just right on George Harrison’s Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth). Cibo Matto’s version of the reggae classic ‘Get Up, Stand Up’, Michael Jackson’s ‘Man In The Mirror’, sung here by Becca Stevens, and Sean Lennon’s reading of Nick Lowe’s (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding are probably the most straight ahead tracks on the album, and none the worse for that.
Throughout the album the organic percussive sounds of tabla, dholak, claypot and daf, the ancient sounds conjured by the handmade bansuri flutes of Baqir Abbas and Nijat Ali’s violin and harmonium merge seamlessly with electric guitar, keyboard and assorted stringed instruments to create a magical backdrop of sound.
Song Of Lahore shows that music is a universal language we all understand and that we all share. It crosses borders both physical and cultural and it unifies in a way that nothing else can.