“Song of Lahore”: Forgotten Pakistani musicians find a new groove with Brubeck

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The musician’s violin is broken, and will likely stay that way. He lives in Lahore, once the cultural center of Pakistan, and decades ago was a vibrant place where a classical musician could make a living performing concerts and recording movie soundtracks.

But when fundamentalist Muslims swept into power in a coup and installed Shariah law, music was considered to be a sin. Musicians were harassed, concerts were banned, instruments were smashed. While life is better now in Pakistan, the generational link was smashed, and those old musicians have trouble getting audiences or younger musicians interested in their traditional classical sounds. They can’t even get those old instruments repaired.

“Song of Lahore” is a documentary that meanders around for a little while and then will suddenly connect with a powerful moment, musical or emotional. Then it frustratingly wanders off point again. Maybe there wasn’t quite enough here for a feature-length documentary, but sprinkled in here and there are some memorable moments of tragedy and triumph, and the music is terrific.

“Song of Lahore” is only being distributed theatrically in New York and Los Angeles, but is out Friday on VOD and DVD.

The film starts off a little rushed and scattered, introducing us to a lot of different Pakistani musicians in a relatively short time. Sachal Studios is created as a place to gather these musicians – both veterans who played in the good old days and the devout sons of others – to give them work and a place to play.

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The band struggles to find relevance when they hit upon an idea; record a Pakistani version of Dave Brubeck’s immortal “Take Five” using sitar and strings. American jazz is not really in their wheelhouse, but they’re excited to experiment, and the stirring result becomes a big hit on YouTube.

The legendary Wynton Marsalis takes notice, and invites the orchestra to New York to perform with him at Lincoln Center. It’s here that “Song of Lahore” finds its focus, as the fish-out-of-water Pakistanis come to New York, and Western and Eastern musicians struggle together to find some common ground in their playing.

Filmmakers Andy Schocken and Sharmeen Obaid-Chiboy generate some suspense as we wonder if this concert will even come off – which is impressive because, of course, they wouldn’t have made a film if the whole thing was a bust, right? Like a Pakistani “Buena Vista Social Club,” “Song of Lahore” pays tribute to some great, unsung musicians and their perseverance in tough times.

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