Music can go a long way to bring estranged neighbours Pakistan and India together, says the Pakistani co-director of a new moving film about how a group of Lahore's struggling musicians bridge the East-West cultural divide.
Opening in select theatres in the US May 20, Song of Lahore takes a close look at these musicians' lives as they prepare for a concert in New York City in a unique experiment blending classical music with Jazz to save the cultural heritage of the subcontinent.
"I think that art, culture, music, film - all of these do not have any language. They are all intrinsically linked to humanity," says two-time Academy Award winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy who has made the documentary with Andy Schocken.
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"Cultural exchanges especially around music can go a long way to bring countries together. Pakistan and India are no different," Obaid-Chinoy told IANS in an interview.
"I have always taken my work across to India; and encouraged Indian artists to come to Pakistan," said Obaid-Chinoy when asked about what role she saw herself playing in this process as a filmmaker.
The film does refer to the common cultural heritage of the two nations, she noted. "In the film we talk about the history, Mughals, and all the rich history that came from the India subcontinent."
Asked what inspired her to make Song of Lahore, Obaid-Chinoy said she "grew up listening to my grandfather's stories of a time in Pakistan which was very different than what I knew."
"The musicians all played on the street and in orchestras," she said speaking of how restrictions on broadcasting non-religious music and dancing imposed by Gen Zia-ul-Haq after his coup in 1977 shut down the Pakistani film industry and forced musicians onto the streets.
"When I discovered that the musicians at the Sachal Studios were trying to restore and celebrate our musical heritage," she said, "I thought we could try to restore Pakistan's musical past through their story."
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Filming on two continents posed its own challenges. "Whenever you're doing a multi-country film it comes with its own set of issues," Obaid-Chinoy said. But "the biggest issue was that I was a woman working with all men and with all male subjects."
"These men didn't want to show me their struggles, which is why I brought on co-director Andy Schocken," she said. "We knew it would be a better partnership with him on board, and he was a perfect partner."
"The men really opened up to him. When the production was in the US/New York, Andy would handle it, and I was handling production in Pakistan.
"Then we were both in New York for the Jazz at Lincoln Centre portion but it took two of us to capture what we needed prior to the concert itself," she said.
Inspired by the film featuring the music of The Sachal Ensemble of Pakistan and the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, Universal Music Classics is also releasing a companion East-meets-West musical album on May 20.
On this cross-cultural, genre-bending collection, the musicians of the film sing songs of understanding and hope alongside stars from across jazz, rock, R&B and Americana, all convened by Grammy Award-winning producer Eli Wolf.
Initially it was not planned as "a companion album but it developed into that. We all reached out to artists together and got everyone on board," Obaid-Chinoy said recalling about how it grew from a conversation with American record producer Rick Rubin at a Google camp.
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Back in Pakistan, as music undergoes a revival, she does not think "Bollywood has affected the music industry at all. But Bollywood has influenced the film industry. Certainly some films seem to have been inspired by Bollywood stories."
Today "Pop music in Pakistan is thriving," even as "instrumental heritage music that came from our roots is struggling," she said. "But then again, classical music all around the world is struggling.
"There are no formal institutions in our country; the music lessons were all passed down from father to son and it is important to preserve these voices."
"Soon we will have a whole generation who didn't learn their father's trade and we might lose the opportunity for the music to live on," Obaid-Chinoy lamented.
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