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.”


A Retrospective Take on Poland

In June 2010, I got the lay of a new land, a tiny town in Poland with lots of consonants. I was having dinner with six Italians a few weeks before (now that was a silent meal)(not really) and they asked where I was off to next. I said, “Some little town in Poland whose name I can’t remember but I think it’s famous for having a Black Madonna.” And in unison they all chimed, “Częstochowa!” How on earth? “We’re Catholic, of course we know where the Black Madonna is!” True story.

So off to Częstochowa (chest-o-ko-vah) I went. And saw. And marvelled. And played a really nice concert. Strangely, it’s not so easy to fly direct from London (Katowice airport, in case you’re ready to book) so we arrived at the hotel at 1 AM. Luckily for me, I was chatting in the bus with the one Pole in the group and he invited me along with a small group the next day to go to the monastery to see Ms. B. Madonna herself.

The Lady

It was raining and cold but that didn’t seem to stop the seventy billion priests of Poland from making their pilgrimage.

Or the Masses (hee) of pilgrims waiting to pay homage to Poland’s most valued national treasure.

The crowds

There were also nuns, taking a coffee break.

The sanctuary itself was really stunning, a beautiful example of cohesive Baroque style.

Outside, more priests were preparing for the public Mass to celebrate Poland’s Liberation day on 3 May. Separation of Church and State? Why do you ask?

The concert was a great success, although it was held in a bathtubby modern church which was part of a seminary. (The Seminar Church.) This had the small disadvantage of being the home of Seminarians — the church balcony was filled with whispering, pointing, giggling 19-yr old men. The only difference between them and a rowdy crowd of football supporters was the cassocks.

It was an early concert so afterwards we went out to a traditional Polish restaurant. Unfortunately, the wires got a bit crossed and 14 of us sat down to a meal prepared for 27. 27 giants, apparently, for the spread was incredible. We all did our best, but didn’t really make a dent. We took some of the leftovers back to the partypoopers at the hotel and hoped that the rest of the leftovers made their way home with the waitstaff.

And lest anyone think that a musician’s life is glamorous, let me just mention in passing the rest of the schedule. My alarm went off at 3.30 AM for a 4 AM bus departure, 6.20 AM flight, 9.40 AM train. I arrived home at 3 PM, 11 hours after I left the hotel. And went straight to bed. Fun it is. Glamorous it is not.

Take the A-train

In July 2008, my friend E. visited from far away for 5 days and you know what that means…


We went to Haarlem (one of the nicest little cities round these parts) and walked around the Hofjes (almshouses) from the last 7 centuries and enjoyed the best frites in Haarlem before going into the St. Bavo Kerk.

We finished up the day with amazing gelato from Gelateria Bartoli and dragged ourselves home.  What a lovely day.

Home again, home again. Jiggety jig.

In February 2009, I spent another gruelling week in a convent in northern Italy. We rehearse in a Renaissance ballroom, sleep in monk’s cells and eat in the fabulous dining room. It’s a tough life.


We had long days of rehearsals but a few hours free in the afternoons and I went for walks in the hills above the convent with lovely views of the Dolomites.


On Friday we flew to Madrid and had a concert there on Saturday in the Teatro Real, THE opera house in Spain.


I prepared for the concert by going to one of my favorite museums on the planet, the Prado. And saw some of my favorite paintings on the planet: Rogier van der Weyden‘s Descent from the Cross:

Hieronymus Bosch‘s Seven Deadly Sins:

and the gorgeous furniture in the main halls:

I also enjoyed my little walk around Madrid, passing right by the Royal Palace:

The concert wasn’t great but was broadcast live on the radio, SURPRISE! Listeners said it sounded good, though. The next morning we bussed three hours to Valladolid for a second concert that night. It went much better, if you could ignore the 4 members of the orchestra turning green and rushing off stage during the applause — big flu epidemic among us. Luckily, yours truly was not affected. The 7.30AM bus ride back to the airport was filled with fun and excitement:


In October 2007  I went on tour again with the Italian orchestra I play with sometimes. We started off in Lonigo, a small town near Vicenza.


The rabble-rousing train station of Lonigo (I’m standing in front of it, gazing at the metropolis). Impressive, no?

Here’s a better view of the city, ahem, town. I had no free time to go visit this church so don’t even know what it was called.

This is where we slept, and ate, and rehearsed. Good thing it was so lovely there, or we might have gotten a little stircrazy.

Ingredients of future nectar, prepared on the premises

Our rehearsal room

and its ceiling

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A Day in Naarden



June 2007: the final day of the Foto Tentoonstelling in Naarden. The whole city (actually, a glorified village) turns itself into a month-long photo exhibition. The town itself is a medieval fortified city shaped like a star with a moat around the wall. There are small venues all around the town, with even a few displays on (and in!) the town walls themselves. Some displays were quite successful, others were a little self-aware and modern-art-I’m-trying-to-make-a-statement-here. But it’s a lovely place and we had a terrific afternoon wandering around.

Stadhuis Naarden

Stadhuis Naarden

Painted ceiling of the Grote Kerk

Painted ceiling of the Grote Kerk

One of my favorite displays

One of my favorite displays

The town walls

The town walls

The town

The town


"Geitjes!" exclaimed the little girl

“Geitjes!” (baby goats) exclaimed the little girl

A real geitje

A real geitje

Look at me!  I'm here!  Look at me!

Look at me! I’m here! Look at me!


Biking through Holland

Actually, biking to Ikea. But *someone* read the website wrong so after biking 75 minutes we discovered that the Temple of Scandinavian Capitalism was closed. But it was a glorious day and instead of crying in our boots (or hopping on a train to get back to A’dam) we decided to bike around some more.

The bike trip through Spaarnwoude and Halfweg to Haarlem is lovely anyway, through a nature reserve and along little bike paths in the fields. We decided to go up to Spaarndam but got on the wrong bike path which took us along the Mooie Nel, a big lake.

This was also the first 3-D bike path I’ve ever been on here in the Flat Lands.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t see any way to cross the Spaarne so turned back and rode through Penningsveer (“penny ferry”). The high point of this village is its windmill — which was open!

The very scary inside steps

I learned more about Dutch windmills than I could have dreamed. Like the Archimedes screw mechanism used for draining the polder (flatlands below sea level). Or the huge winch used to turn the sail mechanism to catch the wind. This one burned down in 1998 (and no wonder, the walls are only made of thatch!) and was rebuilt. Most impressive engineering.

From there we biked to Spaarndam where we had a drink alongside the dike — such a charming village. Along the way we saw all sorts of baby animals.

It almost made up for the spitting of rain which turned into a downpour for the last 45 minutes of the ride. And when did it stop? 37 seconds after we walked inside our front door.