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Lahore's Sachal Orchestra brings a twist to jazz standards

With musicians lured out of retirement, this orchestra, which features traditional eastern instruments, is impressing the West as well. Watch a video of them performing 'Take Five' here.

The Sachal Orchestra practise during a rehearsal at the Sachal Studio in Lahore. Before Izzat Majeed’s plans to have these musicians play jazz, some had even abandoned their instruments amid fears of offending pious neighbours.
The Sachal Orchestra practise during a rehearsal at the Sachal Studio in Lahore. Before Izzat Majeed’s plans to have these musicians play jazz, some had even abandoned their instruments amid fears of offending pious neighbours.

As a 10-year-old boy, Izzat Majeed sat enthralled as some of the jazz greats played a series of rare concerts in his dusty, bustling home city of Lahore.

The former seat of the Mughal empire and the beating heart of Pakistan's music and art scene, the cultural hub that is Lahore left its impression on the young boy. Even when he was not lucky enough for his father Mian Abdul Majeed to take him, the lilting strains of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald singing in the auditorium next to Majeed's home drifted across the rooftops and mingled in the night air with the odd riff from a sitar or tabla.

More than 50 years after that rudimentary introduction to the lure of bossa nova beats and swing, Majeed has finally realised his dream to bring jazz back to his homeland.

This time it is not the United States Information Agency bringing the music to life in foreign climes as it did in the 1950s, part of a campaign by then-president Dwight Eisenhower to portray America in a favourable light overseas.

Now, the music is home-grown, played by classical musicians who had long since hung up their violins or given up hope of ever making a living from indulging their first passion.

Majeed's Sachal Orchestra has breathed new life into a dying industry in Pakistan and taken music lovers from both East and West by storm.

Its album - Sachal Jazz: Interpretations of Jazz Standards and Bossa Nova, a compilation of unique renditions of classic jazz standards involving the tabla and sitar - has sailed to the top of the iTunes jazz charts in both the UK and the US.

A version of Dave Brubeck's Take Five has earned praise from the composer himself, who called it "the most interesting and different recording of Take Five I have ever heard". The official video on YouTube has had more than 178,000 views.

Their success has drawn comparisons with Buena Vista Social Club, a troupe of Cuban musicians who won international acclaim when they reunited after 50 years.

But it took a huge effort to assemble a cast of 50 musicians to recreate tracks such as The Girl From Ipanema and Misty with an eastern twist.

"Jazz was always very dear to my heart," says Majeed, 61, the producer and founder of Sachal Orchestra. "There was a time in the late 1950s when the US used to send the great jazz masters around the world as its ambassadors. All the greats came through Lahore.

"By the time I started producing music, though, all the great musicians in Pakistan had stopped playing. There was no patronage from the state; one musician had opened a vegetable shop, another was running an electrical store.

"I could barely find 10 people who could play the kind of music I wanted. Very few of them were practising music; they were just eking out a living.

"Most of the people who played on this album know absolutely nothing about jazz and had never heard it before."

Classical musicians in Pakistan, a country beleaguered by extremist violence, have faced tough times for decades. Many originally worked in film studios composing scores but as that industry declined, thanks to a lack of funding and increasing religious conservatism, most had to give up their passion just to survive.

Some even abandoned their instruments amid fears of offending their pious neighbours. Ghulam Abbas, the cello player, was running a tea stall while Mubarak Ali, the violinist, earned less than Dh12 a day selling vegetables from his bicycle.

When Majeed, a businessman who made his millions with a series of investments in oil, gas and finance, embarked on his plan to revive the music industry, he had to lure most of his musicians out of retirement.

He built the US$2 million (Dh7.3m) Sachal Studios in Lahore in 2005 with the help of technicians from London's Abbey Road Studios, where The Beatles recorded many of their albums, including their last, and recruited his friend Mushtaq Soofi to track down artists.

Initially the pair produced about 30 albums, bringing well-known Pakistani singers such as Mehnaz and Ustad Mazhar Hussain together with their new-found orchestra.

"It started as a labour of love," he says. "I began producing music in studios in Lahore at a time when it was pretty sleepy and backward in terms of technology and ambience."

Majeed says General Zia ul Haq, Pakistan's president from 1977 to 1988, "killed the music". There was no patronage, paltry funding and a general loss of any sort of vision.

"All the great musicians were in the orchestras of film studios, but the industry went downhill," he recalls. "Pakistan now only produces 10 films a year. Those musicians just stopped playing commercially, but we never forgot them. Mehnaz was in semi-retirement when we persuaded her to do an album and we had to beg Hussain to sing for us.

"It was a joy to see them play and the pride they took."

Majeed's project recreated an era of the 1950s and 1960s, when the music industry was thriving and his late father, a forestry conservation manager who played the piano, flute and guitar in his spare time, would often invite musicians to jam in his home.

"There was always music in the house as far back as I can remember," recalls Majeed. "I still play music 24 hours a day and cannot live without it. It eases everything."

His philanthropic nurturing of his troupe is all the more astonishing considering he never learnt to play an instrument and rebelled when his father insisted he learn the piano.

"I have had no formal training - I just know what I like," he says. "I imbibed music when I was growing up. It is one of my great regrets that I never learnt to play."

Majeed, who now splits his time between his homes in London and Lahore, first went to the UK in 1969 to study politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University.

He began lecturing at Punjab University after graduating but, disillusioned with the general's regime, he left Pakistan and became an adviser to the Saudi government in 1982.

Majeed, a father of three, moved to London in the early 1990s and honed his skills in finance with a private equity fund, which made him a fortune when he sold it in 2000.

He was also instrumental in the $500m sale of Union Bank in Pakistan to Standard Chartered in 2006 and is now the chief executive of Alyph Limited, a UK-based investment firm. His first love, however, has always been music.

"No one outside the Pakistani and Indian diaspora cares about our music," he says. "The jazz album brought us to the attention of the West for the first time."

There has been an approach by a Hollywood producer to make a documentary about the studio, named after Majeed's son Sachal, himself named after the 18th-century Sufi poet Sachal Sarmast.

But for now, the requests to play at concerts in the US and UK have been put on hold. Most of his orchestra would struggle to get visas and, says Majeed, they are session musicians used to playing in recording studios where mistakes can be corrected, not in auditoriums.

They are currently working on a second jazz album, which he hopes will mirror the success of the first.

His only regret is that his father, who died in 2002 at the age of 78, never got to hear the studio's recordings.

"I am producing music he would have been thrilled by," says Majeed. "It is one of the great tragedies that Sachal Studios came too late for him to enjoy the music once again."