The Sachal Studios Orchestra has pulled off the impossible: topping charts around the globe as a world-class jazz ensemble, while braving threats and intimidation to breathe new life into the dying cultural traditions of Pakistan.
Hand-picked from a lost generation of classical musicians who used to play in Lahore’s once-flourishing ‘Lollywood’ film industry, the Sachal Studios Orchestra has made its name with innovative and irresistible interpretations of well-loved jazz standards. Little wonder they’ve been called Pakistan’s Buena Vista Social Club, and Lahore’s answer to the Blues Brothers.
Izzat Majeed is the heart and brains behind the project. A London-based Pakistani businessman, Majeed has been on a personal mission to rediscover and assemble Lahore’s most talented yet neglected Lollywood musicians, finding them in the most humble of places: a cellist was running a roadside tea stall, a violinist was selling vegetables from his bicycle.
Some classical instruments, like the sarangi and the sarod, had all but died out in Pakistan. Majeed was determined to revive them. Majeed remembers ,
“They were getting on in age, they’d stopped teaching their children how to play, and they were surviving however they could, They’d just given up, because they didn’t see any future in music.”
After despairing of the “dismal, coffin-like cubicles” that passed for studios in Lahore he gave the musicians a place to record in 2005. Working with consultants from London’s Abbey Road Studios, he built Sachal Studios – their £2m state of the art, custom-made facilities – using his own money earned working as a fund manager and adviser to a Saudi oil minister. Once world got around that Majeed had constructed the best music studio in Pakistan, musicians started knocking on the door. If you build it, they will come. The son of a film producer, Majeed, 63, grew up in Lahore during Lollywood’s heyday, when the city made hundreds of musicals a year, their score performed by virtuoso musicians. “Our house was always full of music,” he says. “My father would call in all the greats and have an evening of them playing. It got inside me, unconsciously.”
Majeed Sr also introduced the young Izzat to jazz, playing him Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald and taking him to see Dizzie Gillespie and Dave Brubeck live (when he was six and eight, respectively). His dual passions for jazz and classical music from the subcontinent were nurtured simultaneously. Both depend on improvisation and free movement, and for Majeed, they are two sides of the same coin. So when he was selecting and arranging songs for his classical musicians to record, choosing jazz standards was a no-brainer.
‘Jazz and All That’ follows the success of their first album ‘Interpretations of Jazz Standards and Bossa Nova’, released last year, which included their famous take on Bruebeck’s Take Five. The Single held the top spot on the iTunes world music chart in the US and UK from July- September last year, and the video became an unexpected YouTube sensation.
“Brubeck’s Take Five was played in every small kiosk in Lahore in the 1960s, it was always there, and it’s always lived with me,” says Majeed, “so I thought I’d make it. It was a labour of love. Then one fine day, my label rang me up to say it was number one in America on iTunes. The musicians were in heaven. They took jazz very seriously after that!” From the soaring strings and swirling flutes of the opening track, Stevie Wonder’s You’ve Got It Bad, it’s clear ‘Jazz and All That’ marks a new direction for Sachal Studios.
“Eleanor Rigby has a very forceful free time – you should see the sarod playing,” Majeed says. “You can call it a jazz interpretation of Eleanor Rigby.” However you want to classify it, the Sachal Studios Orchestra makes this track their own, completely – dark, lamenting and ominous. Asking Majeed to pick his favourite track is a bit like asking him to choose between his children, but he eventually settles on Edu Lobo’s Bossa Nova classic, Ponteio, where bright flutes float above driving rhythms. “You can dance on that one,” he smiles. Regardless of the inspirational story behind the Sachal Studios project, and the challenges he’s had to overcome to make it a reality, for Majeed, it really is all about the music. “I’m not a crusader,” he says, “I just want to listen to music that really shakes my soul and feels like great fun. That’s the reason I do this. And hopefully, other people will like it too.”