Sachal Ensemble Opens MDC Live Arts Series of Shows From the Muslim World

Sachal Ensemble Opens MDC Live Arts Series of Shows From the Muslim World
Courtesy of Sachal Ensemble
Globalization has produced many stories — not all inspiring. But having a Pakistani ensemble become a worldwide sensation by playing Paul Desmond’s immortal “Take Five,” which pianist Dave Brubeck turned into a hit nearly 50 years ago, has to be one of the most delightful and improbable.

The ten-piece Sachal Ensemble, from Lahore, Pakistan, will appear at the Olympia Theater in downtown Miami this Saturday. The group will open MDC Live Arts' 2017-18 season, titled "Ojalá/Inshallah: Wishes From the Muslim World."

The ensemble became an unlikely global sensation when the video of its performance of “Take Five,” a peculiar, swinging blend of South Asian classical music and jazz, received a million hits on YouTube. Brubeck got to hear it before his passing in 2012 and wrote to producer Izzat Majeed: “This is the most interesting and different recording of ‘Take Five’ that I’ve ever heard... Listening to this exotic version 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!”

The album that followed it, Sachal Jazz: Interpretations of Jazz Standards & Bossa Nova, became a best seller. That led to world tours, appearances at jazz festivals, and a celebrated performance with Wynton Marsalis at Lincoln Center in 2013, captured in Song of Lahore, a documentary film by two-time Academy Award-winning director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken.

Sachal Studios Orchestra, as it is known at home, combines the standard piano, guitar, bass, and drums with traditional Pakistani instruments such as tabla, dholak (a two-headed hand drum), and sarangi (a bowed string instrument). And the repertoire mixes jazz (Brubeck, Pat Metheny), Western pop and rock (R.E.M., the Beatles), and Pakistani music, including traditional Sufi sounds, ragas, and film songs.

“Izzat picked this music, which is familiar to global ears, because he wanted to popularize the genre, both in Pakistan and in the West,” explains Nur Fatima, CEO of Sachal Studios. “The idea was that when the West hears the popular tunes, they can relate to the songs, but the sound, the instruments are different, and when the East hears it, the tunes are somewhat familiar but [listeners] can connect with the sound, the instrumentation.”
Courtesy of Sachal Ensemble
An Oxford-educated economist, Majeed in the 1980s was an adviser to Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources and a hedge fund manager. He was born in Lahore, once a cosmopolitan cultural hub in South Asia and the center of Pakistan’s prolific film industry. His father was a music lover and composer, and Majeed grew up surrounded by music. He heard jazz for the first time when he was 8. At the time, the U.S. State Department was sponsoring jazz diplomacy tours by musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Brubeck. Majeed's father took him to Brubeck’s performance in Lahore in 1958, and that music marked his life.

“I have never heard anything like it,” says Majeed, speaking from his home in Lahore. “I just fell in love with jazz. We had a few jazz records at home, and it was all so different.” He recalls being 13 and going to the American library and getting “a lot of jazz music there.”

But the Lahore of Majeed’s childhood changed dramatically under the dictatorship of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, from July 1977 until his death in 1988. Zia’s authoritarian Islamization of Pakistan, set forth by a mix of religious edicts and regulations, decimated the film industry and, with it, the source of employment for a community of musicians, singers, composers, and arrangers.

“They decided to ban films, which they deemed vulgar because there was a lot of dancing in them,” Fatima recalls. “They said that this was un-Islamic, which is not correct actually. So from 200 films a year, suddenly they were making only ten films a year — and when that happened, hundreds of studio musicians lost their work. They had nothing to do, so they had to take odd jobs — driving a rickshaw, running a shop or turning into a security guard. I mean, can you imagine a great violinist working as a security guard? Ridiculous.”

In 2003, Majeed founded Sachal Studios, named for the 18th-century Sufi poet Saeein Sachal Sarmast, and, with the help of the late composer and violinist Riaz Hussain, reunited many of the great musicians from the glory days of the studios. By then, Pakistan’s music had gone electric and pop, but Majeed began recording classical Pakistani music “with real instruments,” Fatima notes. “The way he'd known it all his life, which is very much part of our culture.

“They used to ask Izzat: ‘What are you going to do with this music?’” recalls Fatima, who is also Majeed’s wife. “And he would say, ‘Look, let’s just make music. All I want to do is preserve the heritage, and I’m sure there will be a way.'”

The way turned out to be uniting his love of jazz and classical Pakistani music.

“As they worked, Majeed realized the structure in Pakistani music was very similar to the structure of jazz: Following a basic tune, the person on the tabla would take off to do his own thing and then cycle back to the main theme, and then the flute would go... It was exactly what happened in jazz,” Fatima says. “But they kept saying that this genre is too new. They told him: ‘The Pakistanis will reject it, and it will be rejected globally as well.’ But then ‘Take Five’ happened.”

– Fernando Gonzalez,

The Sachal Ensemble: Songs of Lahore. 8 p.m. Saturday, November 4, at the Olympia Theater, 174 E. Flagler St., Miami; 305-374-2444; Tickets cost $25 to $55 via
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