The Jazz Musicians of Lahore

By Sonya Rehman

Izzat Majeed is a man of a few words. At first, his monosyllabic answers can rub you the wrong way, particularly if you’re a little on the sensitive side. You might think he’s either being dismissive, or, that he thinks your questions are rather stupid.

Seated behind a large desk at his 3-storey studio, Majeed is reticent without being discourteous. His vibe is of a man who doesn’t have time for casual banter, he’d rather be in the studio – listening to, and making music.

Framed images of the great legends of jazz line the walls as you walk up the stairs to his office at the Sachal Studios (the name of Majeed’s studio was inspired by the great Sufi poet Sachal Sarmast, from Sindh, Pakistan).

There are plenty of blown up, high-res pictures of Majeed’s ensemble, the Sachal Studios Orchestra, lining the walls too. In them, the musicians are seen performing at concerts overseas. One in particular stands out – hung just outside the recording studio in the basement, the group, along with Majeed, are seen on stage standing with Wynton Marsalis (the world-renowned jazz composer and the artistic director of jazz at the Lincoln Centre in New York) and some of the members of the JALC (Jazz At Lincoln Centre) Orchestra.

Photo credit: Sachal Studios.

There is something special about the studio. But this is not apparent while driving to it. Weaving through a slender, meandering, busy commercial street in Lahore, Pakistan, lined with greasy car workshops by the dozen, offices and old residences full of character, the studio looks like any old commercial building…but once you’re inside, the energy shifts.

It is here that some of Pakistan’s most skilled, veteran classical musicians spend their time, jamming and recording in a space that was set up by London’s legendary Abbey Road Studio. It’s a state-of-the-art, custom-designed studio that has produced some of the most unique fusion music by way of the Sachal Studios Orchestra; marrying the genres of traditional eastern classical and jazz…a disarming and exciting amalgamation of melodies.

Sachal Studios performing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, UK, in 2012. Photo credit: Sachal Studios.

Breaking out into the music scene in 2011 with a cover of Dave Brubeck’s 1959 hit single, Take 5, the ensemble was thrust into the spotlight.

And while Sachal’s cover garnered a million hits on Youtube, their first album, Sachal Jazz: Interpretations of Jazz Standards & Bossa Nova, was a best-selling jazz album on iTunes as it shimmied its way all the way up to number one on the charts.

The late Brubeck heard the cover too. Infact, so moved was Brubeck that he wrote to Majeed in 2011, stating; “This is the most interesting and different recording of Take 5 that I’ve ever heard.” The quote is framed in Majeed’s office along with another snippet from Brubeck’s correspondence; “Listening to this exotic version of Take 5 brings back wonderful memories of Pakistan where my Quartet played in 1958. East is East, and West is West, but through music the twain meet. Congratulations!”

Interestingly, Majeed was in attendance at Brubeck’s concert in 1958 which was held at the then trendy hotel in Lahore, Nido’s, on the quaint Mall Road.

The jazz virtuoso’s performance made a lifelong impact on Majeed and it was there, at the age of eight, seated in the packed concert hall, that Majeed fell in love with jazz.

Today, the Sachal Studios Orchestra stands as the only orchestra in Pakistan that plays live, and that too, both jazz and classical music genres. Till date, the Sachal ensemble has collaborated thrice with Marsalis and has performed to an international audience in the United Kingdom (at the Royal Albert Hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Barbican Centre, in London), France (at the Marciac Jazz Festival in Marciac), the United States (at the Lincoln Centre, in New York), Japan (at the 15th Tokyo Jazz Festival) and India, apart from several performances on home turf (at TEDxLahore, the Lahore Music Meet, at the Pakistan National Council of the Arts, and more).

From covers of R.E.M (Everybody Hurts), to Dave Grusin (Mountain Dance), Antonio Carlos Jobim (The Girl From Ipanema and Desafinado), Burt Bacharach (This Guy’s In Love With You), the Pink Panther theme, The Beatles (Eleanor Rigby) and more, it’s hard not to be wowed by the ‘Sachal touch’ – run a quick search on Youtube and you’re hooked. (Pro-tip: Wynton Marsalis and Sachal’s collaboration on John Coltrane’s My Favourite Things at the Marciac Jazz Festival in 2013 is downright magical.)

From the deluge of foreign press coverage (the BBC, the Guardian and NPR to name a few), to a documentary (Song of Lahore) on Sachal’s musicians – directed by the Pakistani filmmaker and Oscar-winner, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival (following screenings in Paris, Germany, Dubai, Montreal, Sydney and more) – the orchestra from Lahore has quickly made a name for itself on the jazz map of the world.

An Economist by profession, Majeed started out his career in the 80s, in the Middle East, in Riyadh, as an advisor to the Minister of Petroleum & Mineral Resource at the time. Later on, Majeed began working with a Saudi partner as an investor. But his love of music remained unfailing throughout his prolific career. However, it needed to be taken a step further. Hence, years later, Majeed decided to put his money to good use. Thus, Sachal Studios was born in 2008.

But Majeed’s affiliation with music wasn’t a random, newfound hobby. Infact, his first introduction to music (well before seeing Brubeck on stage) began when Majeed was only five-years-old. His earliest recollection? Sitting on his father’s lap while his father composed the music score for a film. Back then, Majeed’s father, Mian Abdul Majeed, was the Chairman of the Film Producer’s Association of Pakistan and whose home would be frequented by a number of musicians, particularly the eminent Ali Akbar Khan, an Indian classical musician.

Consequently, music and lyrics were an unending thread throughout Majeed’s early years growing up amidst music and film in the company of some of the greats.

His mother, Seeta Majeed, on the other hand, hailed from a prominent family in India. His parents met in Ludhiana College (in Delhi, India) as students, fell in love and quickly eloped. For that time period, the marriage between a Muslim (Majeed’s father) and a Sikh (Majeed’s mother) would’ve been nothing short of scandalous; it would never have been allowed.

“The story of music in Majeed’s life starts with both his parents,” states Nur Fatima, the CEO of Sachal Studios and also Majeed’s wife.

“Did you know he was temporarily thrown out of Oxford for three months for blaring What’s Going On? from his dorm window,” Fatima reveals, speaking about her husband’s obsession with music, while chuckling and looking over at him teasingly as he grins.

Izzat Majeed (far left) with some of Sachal’s musicians. Photo credit: Sachal Studios.

The song that Fatima mentions is the 1971 classic from Marvin Gaye’s album (of the same name). Thankfully, Majeed was allowed to return to Oxford where he completed his Masters in Politics, Philosophy and Economics in 1972.

“Initially when he launched Sachal Studios, it was with the intention of bringing organic music back to Pakistan,” Fatima says, “This is because he found the current electronic ‘noise’ too monotonous; it’s like stuffing on processed food as opposed to home cooked food that’s made from scratch. When you’re playing an instrument, part of your heart and soul is in it, so the sounds you produce are human.”

Having been silent so far, Majeed asks; “Do you know what jazz is? You have to understand that jazz is exactly the same as our classical music, the structure and foundation is very similar. In our culture, in classical music, you’re stuck to a particular road regarding ragas [scales in classical music], and in jazz, it’s the same thing.”

But is there a demand for classical music in Pakistan? “I don’t care,” Majeed states briskly, elaborating that he’s in it for the love of music and nothing more.

Izzat Majeed with some of his musicians from Sachal Studios in Tokyo, Japan. Photo credit: Sachal Studios.

Revealing that the orchestra is far from financially viable, Fatima says that the orchestra was, and is, by no means a “business.”

“It was never envisioned like that,” she clarifies.

While the orchestra has made its presence felt in the jazz circuit overseas, Sachal’s music isn’t mainstream in Pakistan yet, primarily because it hasn’t taken the commercial route. And judging by the kind of people Majeed and Fatima are; it’s unlikely the music will ever take the conventional path.

Photo credit: Sachal Studios.

Speaking about the recent spike in religiosity in Pakistan over the past few years, has the orchestra faced any issues from hardliners during their gigs in the country?

“No, the fundos are curiously quiet,” Fatima jokes, chuckling, “On a serious note, there’s never been any such threat or incident in Pakistan, the only threat we did however face from fundos were from the Shiva Sena who barred us from performing in Bombay in the winter of 2014; imagine being in a sold-out auditorium (with over 900-plus people in attendance) and being told we couldn’t perform! We were on stage and the curtains never opened, it was terrible. [Majeed] was so upset that he cancelled the rest of our India tour and we promptly returned to Pakistan.”

Interestingly, Majeed is in the works to host the country’s first-ever jazz festival in Lahore, this year, which is set to feature a number of jazz artistes from around the world.

But more than the music itself, the story of Sachal and the man behind it is this: some of Pakistan’s most established classical musicians were given a second chance at their once flourishing careers thanks to Majeed.

In the 70s, the Islamisation of Pakistan (driven by the then military dictator and President of the country, Zia-ul-Haq) resulted in the rapid obliteration of art, culture and tourism.

Once known as the travel destination for foreign tourists and celebrities such as Ava Gardner, Marlon Brando, Quincy Jones (and Dave Brubeck), among others, and where the local film industry (Lollywood) was at its peak, Zia’s concoction of heavy censorship laws and new tax rates swiftly changed the face of a young, promising nation on a roll.

Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger arrive at the Lahore airport in 1954. Photo credit: The Nation.

Suddenly, artistes who once thrived in their fields of music, film and performance, found themselves unemployed and redundant. The outlets for creativity were barricaded, and those who kept their kitchens running on their art alone, quietly recoiled into obscurity and poverty.

“When the film industry finished, the music stopped,” Fatima says, mentioning that a number of musicians had little choice but to give up on their dreams and resort to menial jobs such as selling knick knacks, vegetables and working at roadside tea-stalls.

“Can you imagine a violinist working as a security guard?” she says with disgust. “Sachal was created with the sole intention of bringing the masters back.”

Further elaborating about the dismal state of affairs of some of the musicians, Fatima states that once, when Majeed handed a brand new cello to the group’s cello player he broke down into tears and asked Majeed if he could take the instrument home to practice playing again.

Photo credit: Sachal Studios.

During Sachal’s conceptualization stage, one of the first musicians that he brought on board was the late composer and violinist, Riaz Hussain, who Majeed states was his “mentor.”

It was Hussain who developed the Sachal group, by bringing together a diverse bunch of musicians, all virtuosos with decades of experience of working in the Pakistani film industry. Sadly, Hussain lost his life to cancer in 2014. His death, Majeed states, came as a huge blow.

But it was Hussain’s passing which encouraged Fatima and her husband to instigate a foundation (the Alif Foundation) that would provide health coverage to the musicians (and their families) of traditional music in Pakistan, given that the government has failed to provide any assistance to its artistes since time immemorial.

Having worked in the Pakistani film industry in its heyday and working with the likes of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (the legendary Qawwali singer), Noor Jehan (another Pakistani singing legend) and others, Najaf Ali, one of Sachal’s percussionists who plays the dholak (a two-headed hand drum) and the mridangam (a percussion instrument) states that while he’s been playing music for over three decades, his career hasn’t made him complacent, nor pompous.

“We continue to study our art for hours at a stretch so that our performances never get affected,” he says, “We do this work with immense responsibility. In this day and age, music has no depth, no proper study. Musicians come and go, singing and playing whatever they feel like. There are very few people in Pakistan who are playing pure classical music; but no matter where we travel in the world as our country’s ambassadors – the world must know that Pakistan is home to immense talent.”

Reminiscing about Pakistan’s bygone, golden era of film and music, Ali states; “Do you know what [Noor Jehan] used to say? She used to say that her musicians were her wings and that she’d fly because of them. But that period of Pakistani music, what it once was…it has gone.”

Noor Jehan. Photo credit: The Nation.

“There’s no industry anymore,” elaborates Ijaz Hussain (commonly known in the local music circle as Baloo Khan) who plays the tabla (a South Asian percussion instrument). Hussain’s father, Tafu Khan, has often been touted as Pakistan’s master tabla player. “Now our industry is Sachal Studios.”

Earlier, Majeed had mentioned that having visited the Royal Albert Hall for the very first time, the Sachal musicians were moved to tears while watching the symphonies being played live on stage.

“I’ve been playing music for fifty years,” Hussain says while lightly beating a pleasant rhythm across his tabla, “I’ve traveled the world, but the respect that I’ve received overseas is predominantly due to [Majeed]. The mix of classical music – a genre we’ve been so used to playing in the film industry – and jazz has created an epic atomic bomb!”

Izzat Majeed address a crowd in New York during a collaborative concert between Sachal Studios musicians and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito, Getty Images.

“We’re here and performing on the world stage because of Sachal,” emphasizes Rafiq Ahmed who plays the naal (a wooden, two-headed drum). Ahmed was only 17-years-old when he began playing solo performances for Lollywood films back in the day. “But all of this didn’t start instantly – it took a good 2-3 years for us to understand jazz music. During that time [Majeed] made us hear and become familiar with the genre. When I first heard jazz it felt so different – it was a big change for us. But when that change began within us, it became something very unique and we were able to translate it into our performances.”

“We’d only heard of George Michael and Michael Jackson…jazz was a completely new genre for us,” Hussain interjects, while continuing to play a few notes on his tabla. His thick fingers work quickly and expertly across the instrument’s surface.

However, when the musicians finally got around to understanding and becoming comfortable with the genre, performances were a breeze, usually extending up to 20-30 minutes after the last number because the audiences didn’t want the music to stop.

Photo credit: Sachal Studios.

“The most exhilarating routine for us was at Lincoln Centre [New York], we played to a packed audience for two days, back to back,” Ahmed states enthusiastically. “I remember once when we were rehearsing with Marsalis, he told [Majeed], these people aren’t musicians…they’re magicians!” Ahmed laughs, his words not carrying a trace of conceit, rather, amusement.

“You know, we never thought Pakistani audiences would like Sachal’s music,” Ali says, speaking about how well-received their music has been overseas, “But we were shocked by the appreciation we began getting after performing in Pakistan – it was very surprising. It made us realize that the audiences in the east and the west are identical in their appreciation of classical-jazz fusion music.

Photo credit: Sachal Studios.

Given Sachal’s secure bubble surviving in the midst of a now defunct music industry, Hussain states that the local music scene could only be resuscitated if the youth had teachers to learn the craft of music from. And while Pakistan is home to some of the best classical musicians, the skills are not being passed down due to a lack of music academies in the country.

“In this field, you’re a student for life; look at us, we’ve gotten so old in this field – today’s youth don’t have the patience anymore, they think they’ve made it just by growing out their hair and playing the guitar.”

As the conversation peters out over the next few minutes, the musicians begin dispersing – they’ve been in the studio all day rehearsing non-stop and now they must return home for some rest. Tomorrow after all, is another hectic day of recordings and rehearsals as they gear up for their next routine.

Esquire [Middle East]


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