Another side of Pakistan

Dr Maleeha Lodhi

The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.

Why write about a music album on the op-ed page? Because a remarkable new compilation called ‘Sachal Jazz’ is making waves and receiving praise from music fans across the world. Recorded in Lahore the album is but the latest offering from a lively arts and culture scene that has emerged in the country even in the midst of its daunting and mounting problems. It is note worthy because this shows another side of Pakistan.

The explosion of Pakistani music, art and literature in recent years is a sign of an evolving culture and a living nation. It reflects a vibrant and resilient society undiminished by the turmoil and violence that nevertheless challenges it all the time.

This flowering of art and culture has happened without any official patronage. It manifests itself in the emergence of new talent in many areas of artistic expression. Young writers of English literature have produced novels that have been nominated to the world’s top awards in the field. The growth of the electronic media has helped to foster an environment for music talent to emerge and provide new artists an outlet to reach larger audiences. As a result popular music by Pakistani singers has for the first time been dominating the subcontinent in an interesting role reversal between the two neighbours.

There is another reason why the music album ‘Sachal Jazz’ should be highlighted. Much debate takes place in the country about the kind of soft power Pakistan should deploy abroad to try to change negative perceptions about it. Often this discussion is in the abstract. So when a concrete opportunity presents itself in the form of music that can appeal to an international audience, it warrants attention on that count too. There is nothing like music to break down walls and barriers.

Pakistan is often seen outside the country through a single-issue lens and reduced in western media coverage to a caricature and a bundle of stereotypes. This uni-dimensional focus overshadows and obscures the country’s rich culture and heritage and its extraordinarily vibrant arts scene. But it is for Pakistanis themselves to project the country in its full spectrum and diversity.

The game of changing perceptions rests on fashioning and communicating narratives that frame a country in the eyes of its own people and of those beyond its borders. Such narratives are evolved as much from the country’s culture, music and heritage as from its collective experience and political history. It is often said that it is in cultural expression that a nation’s idea of itself is best represented.

This is what makes ‘Sachal Jazz’ so special. Produced in Lahore the album is a good example of a cultural product that can be pitched to a global audience to send an altogether different message about the country than the headlines it receives. Like other exciting music coming out of Pakistan it challenges the stereotypical image of the country as culturally impoverished and where only violence and terrorism are to be found.

The album is a fusion of traditional classical music with western jazz and has been an overnight sensation with music fans across the world. The video of its title track ‘Take Five’ has been receiving thousands of hits on YouTube every day. It has been the subject of a story in The Guardian titled ‘Jazz album by Pakistan music veterans storms western charts.’

In reaching a world where Pakistan really hasn’t figured – except briefly thanks to the musical brilliance of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – this has helped to show the country in a different light. The album has made a splash by its imaginative re-interpretation of jazz favourites and by offering pleasurable music that soars to new and unexplored heights.

The person responsible for the album, from conception to completion, is entrepreneur and philanthropist Izzat Majeed, who spends his time these days between Lahore and London. Years of living abroad have not dimmed his passion for Pakistan. His love for music urged him in 2005 to set up a modern, high-tech music studio in Lahore; his birthplace, which he believes should drive the country’s cultural renaissance.

The aim of Sachal studios has been to promote music, encourage new musicians, explore new ideas and attract young talent. Majeed’s father was a leading figure in Pakistan’s once flourishing film industry, which is where his enthusiasm for music came from. The decline of the industry meant that the only source of income for most musicians vanished, throwing many out of work and into destitution. Majeed’s studio is dedicated to reversing this by providing a home for veteran masters and a platform for fresh talent.

The compilation he has assembled consists of timeless western jazz and bossa nova numbers including the classic ‘Take Five’, composed and immortalised by the legendary Dave Brubeck Quartet. Within days of its release the album shot to the top of the iTunes jazz charts – number one in the US and number two in the UK. Brubeck himself responded enthusiastically. “This is the most interesting and exciting interpretation of ‘Take Five’ I have heard”, he wrote Majeed. He said “Listening to this exotic version” brought back memories of Pakistan where his quartet actually played in 1958.

He had something more to say: “East is East and West is West but through music the twain meet”. This went to the heart of what Majeed has ended up accomplishing – bring two very different worlds together. His album has taken masters of classical Pakistani music, sitar maestro Nafees Khan, tabla guru ‘Balu’ Khan and sarod player Tanvir Hussain to the world stage. It has become the vehicle to win recognition abroad for Pakistan’s often ignored maestros of classical music. In fulfilling that ambition the effort has to be appreciated.

The 60-member Sachal Orchestra was assembled for a unique recording that Riaz Hussain arranged. The result is an album that other than hold listeners in thrall “also helps to ease the Western phobia about Pakistan”, says Majeed.

He strikes a note of humility when asked if he produced this musical extravaganza from a desire to change the way Pakistan is viewed in the West. “The motive force was my passion for music – but in surprising the world with what we can produce I am humbled that this also served as a shot in the arm for Pakistan’s image” he told me. “It certainly helps to ease fears, both real and imagined, about Pakistan”, he added.

He does not hide his disappointment that while the album has been making waves from Japan to America, the response from the “powers that be” in Pakistan has “been pathetic”. No one has approached the studios, musicians or him to applaud the effort much less explore how to use this opportunity to showcase Pakistani music and culture in the international arena.

This will not deter Majeed from doing more of what he enjoys. A series of concert tours are in the offing in the US and Europe. The album might even earn a nomination to a ‘Grammy’, the American music industry’s most prestigious annual award. But it will be a shame if this becomes a missed opportunity to use the soft power of his music to convey a different impression about the country. One music album will not change the way the country is perceived. But it is a good place to start efforts to show the other side of Pakistan.


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