"The moon and sun don’t care if anyone appreciates them or not. They are spreading the light... The artist should act too like a sun.” Baqar Abbas
What do Americans think of Pakistanis? What do Pakistanis think of Americans? Of course, there are millions of Americans, millions of Pakistanis. Different people think different things.
The people in the documentary “Song of Lahore” want you to think of them as artists, not as terrorists. Pakistanis know far more intimately than Americans about terrible aspects of their country. This film isn’t an issue picture; it’s a picture about making music.
The people in “Song of Lahore” are musicians. They struggle for artistic relevance and the ability to earn a living in a country where, for years, music making was religiously and legally forbidden. They are classical musicians. In Lahore, one of the most populous cities in the world, being a classical musician hearkens back through a 1000-year history as a cultural center.
Living amidst a younger generation where rock & roll and synthesizers whooshed into the musical vacuum created by repression in Pakistan, the Sachal Jazz Ensemble lit on a path through Dave Brubeck’s jazz classic, “Take Five.” Certain people heard their Pakistani flavored rendition, and before they knew it, Wynton Marsalis has them scheduled to play with his orchestra at Lincoln Center in New York.
Nijat Ali took over as conductor and arranger when his Sachal co-founder father died. Nijat plays harmonium (a hand-powered portable organ). Bagar Abbas makes by hand the flutes he plays. Ballu Khan extracts complex rhythms from his tabla drum. Others play dholak and naal drums. There’s even violin and guitar. And sitar adds a notable dynamic to this music and this documentary story.
One reason to see documentaries is anthropology. In this case of musical anthropology, we learn something about an ethnic corner of music we are not much exposed to. We learn of obstacles and opportunities, about the debt people feel to a tradition and the challenge of paying (and paving) for the future.
Maybe, in a humble music appreciation sort of way, it is an issue picture.