A Cry in the Wilderness

Everyone loves a red phone box…

… but not everyone is willing to travel so far to reach one.

In July 2017, I spent 18 days on the Orkney and Shetland Islands. The inherent contradiction of wild remoteness and cozy Britishness was a fascinating one that kept me occupied during our stay. It was very easy to see and feel that the Shetland Islands were Norse in all aspects besides that of nationality.


Etape No. 1: London-Vancouver. 7580Km or 4710 miles.

Note: this is a repost from March 2009. The British orchestra I was then playing with went to North America for a 3-week, many-thousand-mile tour. This is the first of several posts recounting our adventures.

Our tour started out quite gently, with a long flight but then a nice recovery period of a free day and a half before our first concert. The flight was odd because we left at 5PM British time and flew up and over, so watched the sun set and then rise again, all in the same day, and landed in daylight. img_0250editThe hotel was quite nice, individual suites, which really makes a difference. When you have a few hours, you can go and make coffee or cook and watch TV and knit without having to perch on your bed.

What a lovely city Vancouver is! We woke early of course, to a brilliantly blue sky, with tantalizing glimpses of mountains between the highrises and views of the bay. I had made contact recently with my friend O.R.K. who has recently relocated to Vancouver and was delighted to give me a yarn tour of the city. Fellow musicians and yarn nuts R. and E. were happy to join and she was the best tour guide for three very happy and excited sheep.

First stop was Sweet Georgia Yarn‘s dyeing studio. I’d first seen her yarns online some time ago and was SOOOO excited to find out she was open on our one free day. I examined her stock online and picked out a few favorites but of course they weren’t the ones I loved when I got there. She was friendly and welcoming, although a bit perplexed to have foreign musicians fondling her yarns with such enthusiasm. Three of us gravitated towards the same luscious green skein but I graciously conceded it to E., justifying it on the grounds that I have had the pleasure of knitting with some gorgeous green yarns lately. Unfortunately, the skeins I really fell in love with were special order only so what could I do? I ordered them. And not two skeins (= one pair of socks), no no, for that would be a waste of shipping money. No, I decided to order two of the turquoise and two of the yellow. I’ll figure out later what to do with them. Her studio was also completely charming, in a building with a lovely communal courtyard and a STUNNING view of the mountains from her huge window. How inspiring!

On to stop #2 — “Oh, this place is more interesting for their old giant carding machine than for their yarns” says ORK nonchalantly. How long did we spend there? At least an hour and many many bucks were dropped. Birkeland Bros does feel like an old general store, with stock piled up in bags on chairs and roving stacked up to the ceiling. True enough, the giant carder in the back was remarkable – I’d love to see it in use. She had some Fleece Artist and Hand Maiden on sale so we all had to pore over those. E. got some glorious undyed loosely-spun bulky singles and the rest of us managed to stumble out with some Fleece Artist. By then we were becoming faint with the wool fumes so we made our fuzzy way to Burgoo’s where we ate extremely yummy sandwiches and the best butternut squash soup I’ve ever dreamed of (hint: the secret’s in the maple syrup).

Stop #3 was across the road: Urban Yarns. This is a much more traditional, upscale yarn boutique. Nevertheless, there were some gorgeous lovely things and we all fell down again, with the inevitable credit-card injuries that follow. I personally was responsible for aiding the Peruvian (by way of Canada) economy by purchasing some Mirasol Tupa in a beautiful cornflower blue.

At this point we were feeling faint again so went for a quick (and I mean minute) beach walk along the bay and took silly photos of each other taking photos. The view was incredible but it was SOOO cold and we were starting to experience yarn withdrawal so we trundled on to Granville Island and the next wooly destination, Maiwa Handprints. The yarns were nice but the shop itself had a really cool vibe to it and, last but definitely not least, had their own collection of natural dye powders. I was tempted by quite a few but only succumbed to one small pot of indigo, sold at about 1/3 the price in Holland. Whoopee!

After our yarn overload, we wandered through the market and bought picnic supplies for dinner. We ended up at the Beachfront Grill or Bar or something and were joined by ORK’s fella, who was utterly delightful. We had booze and fondled our purchases and reminisced over a perfect day. The solitary evening with sushi and Project Runway was the perfect ending.


IDFA #10: Eritrea Stars

Charming and thoughtful movie about 16 Eritreans, the former national soccer team, adjusting to refugee life in Gorinchem. What did they leave behind? The North Korea of Africa. They don’t even trust each other and won’t talk about their pasts. Sadly, they break up the team in their quest for individual independence. Only 55 mins, this movie left unanswered several questions: why did they break up? What did they leave? And how did they get here?

IDFA #9: Human

As much as I love Yann Arthus Bertrand’s aerial photography, I felt a bit manipulated in this 1994-style documentary. Stark interviews w tribal types reinforcing global injustice. We know all this! And accompanied by gorgeous soaring aerial videos of natural wonders set to a cheap Enya-style synthesized-strings elevator feel-good soundtrack. Why not real music by those tribes (read: HUMANS) you’re trying so hard to portray? Some interviews were indeed very touching but at 188 mins, I would have appreciated a stricter editor.
Final scene was of a Chinese swimming pool sardined with couples in floaty rings b/c most Chinese can’t swim.
Me: Imagine letting Azad and Anoushka loose in there!
Marco: Population China = 12.

Song Of Lahore: Pakistan’s Musicians Affirm Their Place In A Country That Threatens To Forget Them

Posted: 05/01/2015 7:37 am EDT Updated: 05/02/2015 3:59 pm EDT

WASHINGTON — The value of one’s soul is hard to measure, but Baqir Abbas, a musician in the Pakistani city of Lahore, has it worked out for himself. Abbas’ soul is slightly less precious to him than the delicately designed bamboo flutes he carves. “All the stories of the world will play from it, God willing,” he says, before kissing his latest instrument and touching it twice to its forehead.
Abbas explains his philosophy in “Song of Lahore,” a new documentary about an intergenerational community of musicians skilled in their own mix of traditional Pakistani music and the Western orchestral scores demanded by Lahore’s once-booming film industry. He and his fellow musicians “find God in music,” Abbas says.
Their critics do not, and the very act of practicing their craft now makes them targets in a more conservative Pakistan. Followers of the increasingly influential, hardline Deobandi school of thought in Sunni Islam consider music to be sinful and musicians to be apostates who have no place in an avowedly Muslim nation.
“Song of Lahore” is powerful because it shows these musicians do have a place in Pakistan.
Last week, the 82-minute documentary won multiple standing ovations and a joint second place in the Documentary Audience Award category at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. But the feature’s greatest triumph is that it proves the Deobandis wrong: These musicians are quintessentially Pakistani and essential to the nation’s cultural identity, Islam and all.

Worshippers gather at Lahore’s historic Badshahi Mosque on April 25, 2015.
Progressive Pakistanis who value their country’s musical heritage have been making that case for decades.
My grandmother Zaib-un-Nissa Hamidullah, a pioneering political journalist, saw the trouble coming just a decade after the nation was created. Hamidullah addressed Pakistanis skeptical of music in the introduction to her 1958 short-story collection, The Young Wife and Other Stories. She warned that “No Music Before Mosques,” one of the tales, “might not find favour with the orthodox and yet it is for them it is written.”
“No Music Before Mosques” tells of a village flutist who plays melodies dedicated to God at each of the five daily prayer times prescribed in Islam. The flutist is driven to express his devotion this way, even though it infuriates his traditionalist father. The conflict between his music and his father becomes too much. He kills himself. The tragedy is that there didn’t have to be a conflict at all: As his niece says to the family, playing the flute was “his way of telling Allah how much he loves Him.”
“It is my earnest hope that some day our over-orthodox observers of the letter of religion will come to realize that there are many ways of praying,” Hamidullah wrote. “The artist, the writer or the musician who puts his heart and soul into that which he composes and dedicates it to the Great Creator is offering prayers up to his Maker just as sincerely as any [cleric] who kneels five times a day.”
Her hope remains unfulfilled in the Pakistan of 2015.
Instead, the country has seen regressive Islamic thought blossom, especially since the 1980s. In that decade, Sunni extremists grew with financial and military support from dictator Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and the CIA, which fostered them as anti-Soviet proxies, and from donors in the Gulf countries seeking to promote conservative Sunni thought to counter the 1979 Shiite Revolution in Iran. More recently, the U.S.-led war on terror has brought those groups greater prominence and more recruits, many from Gulf-funded religious schools called madrassahs. Many of them now target their jihad internally on the Pakistani population, particularly threatening people they deem overtly offensive to Islam — like musicians.
All the while, the space for culture in Pakistan has continued to shrink because of deliberate misinterpretations of Pakistani history and Islamic thought that Gen. Zia institutionalized in schools and the law.
“Song of Lahore” focuses on the fate of classical musicians in the country’s cultural hub, Lahore, post-Zia and post-9/11. Co-directors Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who in 2012 became the first Pakistani to win an Oscar, and Andy Schocken, a producer-director from Brooklyn, spent two years following Abbas and other musicians associated with Lahore’s Sachal Studios.

Saleem Khan (right), a violinist for the Sachal Jazz Ensemble, with his grandson.
Established by a millionaire financier in 2004, Sachal Studios seeks to save the tradition of Lahori classical musicians — specifically, the cultural descendents of men who rose to prominence in Lahore’s once-thriving film industry and performed for visiting dignitaries like Queen Elizabeth II. That means giving them the space and support to practice and winning them audiences at home and abroad.
Sachal’s founder, Izzat Majeed, is a jazz enthusiast with a plan: to let these musicians loose on internationally loved jazz classics whose melodies aren’t that different from their own traditional tunes. The Sachal renditions of jazz standards were already winning attention outside Pakistan at the point when “Song of Lahore” introduces us to the Sachal Jazz Ensemble, musicians in their 20s through 50s who are preparing for their biggest challenge yet — a major November 2013 concert with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in New York. Each man has his own emotional tale of alienation in a changing Pakistan. As the film tracks Sachal’s journey, it tracks the individual musicians’ struggles, too.
The international exposure matters because demand has dried up for the classical musicians’ work. The stars who now dominate the Pakistani music scene are young pop singers who appear on television, win sponsorships from multinational corporations and rarely require violins, flutes, tabla drums, harmoniums or other tools of the old-school trade.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Obaid-Chinoy said the classical musicians lack nearly everything, other than skill and talent, that it takes to be successful in that way.
“If you look at the pop musicians in Pakistan, they come from certain income brackets, from middle- or upper-class families that could send them to school and college,” the director said. “Most of our classical musicians have literally only studied music. They have not gone to college; they do not speak in English.”
But Obaid-Chinoy added, “They have a lot of what we would call tehzeeb,” using an Urdu word that roughly translates to inherited refinement. “You can’t buy tehzeeb.”
Many of these musicians — in fact, all of those featured in “Song of Lahore” — are even more marginalized because of their faith: They follow Shiite Islam, the minority branch in Pakistan and the world. Though around 20 percent of Pakistan’s Muslims are Shiites, members of the community are increasingly attacked at their places of worship and as they go about their daily business. Prominent Shiite doctors have been murdered on their way home from their jobs in Pakistan’s biggest city, my hometown of Karachi.
Many Pakistanis have become unwillingly accustomed to the idea that Shiites should keep quiet about their identities. When I watched some of the musicians on-screen chant a traditional Shiite call at a funeral, my first thought was that they should be more careful. I regretted that reaction as soon I’d had it — but it was still my initial instinct.
The musicians’ story needs to be shared because Pakistan is “at risk of losing our culture and our heritage,” Obaid-Chinoy told HuffPost. “It’s important for us to educate the audience, to say the music died and how it died — that it was silenced systematically.”

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken, co-directors of “Song of Lahore.”
Similar thinking pushed the U.S. State Department to sponsor the Sachal musicians for their latest New York trip to attend the “Song of Lahore” premiere earlier this month and to meet American musicians, according to two State officials speaking on background.
During the heyday of Lahore’s movie industry in the 1950s and 1960s, a State Department program called Jazz Diplomacy sent big-name musicians like Duke Ellington to Pakistan and other Cold War allies. The musicians featured in “Song of Lahore” speak wistfully of those days.
The State Department saw the Sachal trip as honoring that decades-old association. “It’s the same messaging of teaching through art and culture,” one official said. “But for us [given the situation in Pakistan], it’s now more important than ever.”
Schocken, the other director, said it was emotional for him to see the musicians again. In Pakistan, he and Obaid-Chinoy had witnessed so many intimate moments: family deaths, professional failures, anxiety before their big concert in New York.
Describing himself as a “music nerd,” Schocken said their shared focus had helped overcome the language barrier between him and the Pakistani musicians.
“We don’t have a traditional score for the film as most feature-length films do have,” he said. “With a few exceptions, the music is performed by the characters in the film, and the music itself is a character in the film. … It’s critical to the journey that the audience takes while they’re watching. It’s as central as the interviews or the visual images.”
“Song of Lahore” ends on a few high notes: The Sachal team overcomes its initial nervousness with the American orchestra to wow the Lincoln Center audience and, even more important, then gives a packed concert back home in Lahore. “It is the audiences at home that have to love and appreciate your music,” Obaid-Chinoy said. “Lincoln Center is a great platform. But Alhamra Hall is their home.”
Obaid-Chinoy said she is optimistic about the future of classical Pakistani music because of Sachal’s international footprint and forums like last month’s Lahore Music Meet, organized by a group of ambitious 20-somethings who brought together representatives from the pop world and Sachal. Her documentary should help as well. She said “Song of Lahore” will likely be shown at a few more international film festivals before a full theatrical release near the end of 2015.

Najaf Ali (left) with his father Rafiq Ahmed, both members of the Sachal Jazz Ensemble.
The musicians are hopeful, too. Rafiq Ahmed, who plays a classical drum called the naal, sat with his 30-something son a couple of years ago and explained to the “Song of Lahore” camera what Sachal’s growth meant to him.
“It felt,” he said, “like the music was alive again.”

IDFA 2015, Ukrainian Sheriffs

IDFA #7: Brick in the Wall. 7/10

Bittersweet portrayal of a family building a grand villa in their Romanian village. Now nearing 40 years, this is truly a never-ending story. A couple in their 60s started working on their grand castle in 1973 and the pace of construction continues at a snail’s pace, maybe 3 bricks per day. The son (who has his father’s schnozz) comes to help but no progress is made; meanwhile, they live in a 1-rm hut. The wife tells us that she suggested that they get engaged after they had kids. They finally did, in 1993, and are still engaged. He seems to like long-term projects.
We find out afterwards from the director that the husband was once known as the best builder in the village (Vama?) and constructed many houses. He is such a devout atheist that he wanted to build their house taller than the new church, but the church got finished first and now he’s too ashamed to finish.e also promised his wife she could have a religious wedding in the house when he finished it so that’s another reason to postpone. Absurd story.
IDFA #8: A French Laundry. 3/10
A 90-yr old Tunisian Jew shows us his one-man laundry in Nice and reflects on the past. He is a firm believer in hard work and tells us all sorts of stories about how hard he has worked in his life and that he used to be a jeweller whoraked in the cash but now it’s all gone. He was friends with an SS officer in Tunisia who helped save him from the others at the end of the war because “You’re not really Jewish.” Very run- down shabby place with one washing machine and one centrifuge and flaking paint. We see him make the decision to finally retire and watch the renovation of his building.
But boring!!! Endless shots of his right cheek from behind, then left, then right, then left. Of people at the beach from behind. Of people walking past his shop window. Dull dull dull. Too bad, the story was good, but the telling was not captivating.
“Je ne veux pas me caisser les bonbons.”