The classical musicians who play jazz

Sachal Music is a parallel space for practitioners of Eastern music, arranging for more than just sustenance

Ali Raj October 31, 2015
Sachal Jazz Ensemble performing at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis. PHOTOS: PUBLICITY


Having been around for over a decade now, Sachal Music is no more in its experimental phase — but perhaps it never was. The idea of an orchestra playing familiar, evocative tunes without a star vocalist taking centre stage is no more alien; it has cultivated a market of its own in Pakistan and, more so, achieved critical acclaim internationally.

In Chuck Palahniuk’s terms, Sachal Music is quite a parallel space for masters of Eastern classical music — a Fight Club that has arranged for more than just sustenance for these people in troubled times. Talking to The Express Tribune, the man behind the idea, Izzat Majeed, breaks the club’s first rule. “Yes, there is a market for instrumental music in Pakistan. There is a whole generation that is very happy with it,” says Majeed.

Like most stories in our country do, this one too starts from General Zia. The ensemble’s live-wire set about working on the project to rescue musicians from spiralling into poverty, thanks to the former dictator. He holds that attempts were made to “bury our music forever” and dismisses the notion that the victim card has been a tad overplayed. “Without patronage, culture never works. It’s very simple —  if a dictator doesn’t have a clue about music and culture, all he can do is destroy them. And that’s what Zia did.”

Back in the day, he says, our musicians were making ends meet because of the film industry, claiming that there was a time when “Pakistan was number three in the world of filmmaking.”

Majeed holds music was the dominant feature of Pakistani cinema and with the latter’s decline following Zia’s arrival, the former died a natural death. “There were great players … Shah Khan, Sharif Khan  ... they were all great classical musicians. They enjoyed working for cinema, which was their sole source of income.”

Majeed is at variance from the idea that the decline of classical music’s appeal also has to do with the failure of those who should have represented it, keeping modern sensibilities in mind. “The Beethovens and the Bachs are still there and the West thrives on those fundamentals. We had our own gurus such as Ghulam Ali Khan. The tragedy is that there was nobody after them.”

A cultural interlude

He goes on to make a claim that might just contradict facts. “Let me tell you one thing. There is no sarangi player in Pakistan. There are hardly one or two sitar players. So, you can imagine what’s going on.”

However, unlike that of many, Majeed’s line of thought does not end with leaving the baby at the former dictator’s doorstep —  it intersects his line of action. “It has taken years to bring them [younger generation] in and introduce our own structures of classical music, folk music, film music — you name it.” Majeed feels the resurrection is finally happing. “We’re working with classical raagas. This year, we made about 30 classical songs with some great evolving musicians.” He remains, however, tightlipped when asked how the Sachal Music model differs from that of Coke Studio.

Izzat Majeed

Sachal Music’s playground is the territory shared by Eastern and Western music. “Jazz works in its own intrinsic structure, which is extremely close to the way Eastern classical music works. There are structures that make up a particular raag. That’s exactly the same with jazz,” he mentions.

Referring to their tribute to Dave Brubeck Quartet, Take 5, which has so far gathered nearly a million views on YouTube, he says, “You can take all the great compositions from the West, for example, and give your own structure to them.”

The ensemble is currently working on projects in countries as musically diverse as Japan and Brazil. Yet, Majeed states, “ninety per cent of our work is engaging our own people here in Lahore.” The orchestra is heading towards the US for a tour after which France and Germany are in line.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 1st, 2015.

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