‘Song of Lahore’ Documents the Struggle to Preserve a Musical Heritage

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In America we’ve been dealing with decades-long culture war which has been playing out in our political system. Whether it’s about gay rights, the right to choose, or even sex and violence in media, all have had prolonged battles in the court of public opinion, even with victories seemingly protracted into lengthy appeals processes. With few exceptions, it has been a remarkably non-violent struggle, one that the American people take for granted. In Lahore, Pakistan, where just recently a horrific bombing occurred, their culture war has extended beyond the political realm and into a nightmarish realm of violence and oppression. In the new documentary Song of Lahore, the directing duo of Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken follow the members of the Sachal Studios Orchestra in Lahore and their tireless attempts to revive the music that had been suppressed by past regimes. It is a film that is equal part illuminating and frustrating, one that opts to take on the form of a more traditional concert film than an examination of a culture struggling to survive.

Following the military coup of 1977 and the implementation of Sharia Law, the once-thriving music scene of Lahore was ruined as musical performances were outlawed. Over time the restrictions were gradually lifted, but the damage had been done. The traditional music of Lahore was all but forgotten in favor of synthetic pop music. Founded in 2004 by businessman Izzat Majeed, the Sachal Studios Orchestra served to protect the traditional music that had faded from the public consciousness. But like all creative endeavors, the musicians of Sachal Studios tweaked the music, interpreting old American Jazz numbers through their unique Pakistani lenses. When a video of them performing Dave Brubeck’s Take Five goes viral, the Sachal Studios Orchestra is about to embark on their most important performance ever, teaming with Wynton Marsalis and his band at the Lincoln Center in New York City. Time is short for the two different groups to learn each other’s styles and seamlessly mesh them together in front of an audience.

Song of Lahore is at its most interesting when shedding light on certain historical aspects, providing viewers with information about the 1977 coup that may not have been common knowledge. Most fascinating, though not quite in depth, was the fact that these musicians were influenced by American Jazz through a program of cultural ambassadors started by the State Department which brought Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington to Pakistan in the ‘50s. It is also interesting to watch these musicians blend two styles and create something simultaneously new and traditional.

But there’s one aspect to this story that gets no attention from Obaid- Chinoy and Schocken, and that’s the role women play in the music and broader culture of Pakistan. Of course, we could make all sorts of assumptions as to why we never see women pick up any musical instruments – this includes Marsalis’ band in New York. But we shouldn’t have to make assumptions about something that is staring us down throughout the film. A woman doesn’t even speak until halfway through the movie, and that’s pretty much it. This aspect of the cultural story at hand could at least garner a little lip service instead of just being flatly ignored.

Those with ancestral roots in Pakistan and those with an affinity for jazz will enjoy the portrait that is Song of Lahore. From a musical standpoint, it’s a fairly thorough examination of a torch passing, of people getting together to ensure that their cultural heritage doesn’t fade from the Earth. A majority of the film is these musicians perfecting their craft, and is nicely punctuated with their big concert and collaboration with Wynton Marsalis. But there’s that large gaping hole at the center of its exploration, one that diminishes the overall impact of this swift, mostly entertaining film. Song of Lahore is a good documentary that falls short of greatness because of the questions it is simply unwilling to ask.

Song of Lahore
  • Overall Score

The Verdict

Song of Lahore presents a true story about the attempts to save a musical heritage, but it doesn’t always tackle all of the topics right in front of it.

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