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Meet The Pakistanis Who Won't Let The Music Stop

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 9/11/2015 Akbar Shahid Ahmed
ATHENA IMAGE © Mike Pont/Getty Images ATHENA IMAGE

When Pakistan makes headlines, it's usually for a "security" issue -- attacks by the Pakistani Taliban, peace talks in neighboring Afghanistan, U.S. drone strikes, nuclear safety.

What doesn't come up as much is what Pakistan has lost because of all this insecurity. Human lives, certainly, get tallied in stories about insurgent offensives or civilians inadvertently hit during drone missions. But many of the nation's more than 180 million residents are aware of a less visible loss: the death of a certain history, of a past in which Pakistanis won the world's acclaim, rather than its sympathy.

Musicians in Pakistan's cultural capital, Lahore, remember those bygone days well. Beginning in the late 1970s, a devout military dictator, a CIA-backed state policy of supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, massive Saudi Arabian investment in religious seminaries and other factors began to make Pakistani society more conservative. Before that, musicians say, their craft was celebrated at home and appreciated by foreign grandees ranging from Duke Ellington to the Queen of England.

Pakistan's once-thriving film industry was especially important, because it offered musicians the budgets and audiences no small-scale, local performance ever could. Over the past three decades, as viewers have turned away and narrow-minded clerics have gained influence, the industry has declined, hitting artists especially hard.

But one small group of classically trained performers, who've banded together in what they call the Sachal Jazz Ensemble, is trying to keep the music going. In 2004, millionaire benefactor Izzat Majeed set up Sachal Studios to promote Pakistanis skilled with traditional and Western instruments. Brought together by Majeed, the members of Sachal made it all the way to Lincoln Center in New York and London's Barbican Centre -- and then began attracting audiences back in Lahore. Conductor Nijat Ali told HuffPost that the size of the crowds vastly exceeded their expectations.

"Song of Lahore," a new documentary that was played earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, follows the Sachal Jazz Ensemble. Featuring emotional footage of both the members' raw moments at home and their success onstage, the film helps viewers understand the experiences, worries and eventual triumphs of performers who many in the West have never heard of.

"Song of Lahore" is co-directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Pakistan's first Oscar winner, and Andy Schocken. It premieres at theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Nov. 13. Below is an advance clip from the documentary, shared exclusively with HuffPost. Hit play to hear flutist Baqar Abbas explain how his instrument, his soul, his family and his vision for his music are all intertwined. 

 

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