A Millionaire Saves The Silenced Symphonies Of Pakistan

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Izzat Majeed address a crowd in New York during a collaborative concert between Sachal Studios musicians and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The Lahore-born philanthropist founded a recording studio and provided opportunities for musicians in Pakistan. Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

The city street where Sachal Studios is located looks like any other in Lahore, Pakistan. There are tea stalls and rickshaws and grimy car repair shops.

But it doesn’t quite sound the same — or more precisely, there’s a sound that Pakistanis have begun to forget.

Inside Sachal Studios, an orchestra is in rehearsal. The musicians are all men. Most are old enough to be grandfathers.

Their skills were going out of fashion in Pakistan. Now, they’re winning applause worldwide.

The city street where Sachal Studios is located looks like any other in Lahore, Pakistan. There are tea stalls and rickshaws and grimy car repair shops.

But it doesn’t quite sound the same — or more precisely, there’s a sound that Pakistanis have begun to forget.

Inside Sachal Studios, an orchestra is in rehearsal. The musicians are all men. Most are old enough to be grandfathers.

Their skills were going out of fashion in Pakistan. Now, they’re winning applause worldwide.

Home And Away

It’s not easy running an orchestra in Pakistan. Some skills do seem to have vanished, Majeed says.

“I can’t find a single piano player in Lahore, maybe in Pakistan, a real piano player,” Majeed says. “People come and say, ‘Oh, I can play,’ but he can play atrociously — he doesn’t know what the piano, the real piano, is. There’s no brass left. Brass is dead.”

When Sachal musicians go on tour abroad — to, say, London or New York — they hook up with outside musicians. That includes some big names, among them Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

The studio orchestra is now firmly on the map.

It recently released its second album, Jazz and All That. There’s more Brubeck, among other Western classics by The Beatles, Jacques Brel, Antonio Carlos Jobim, R.E.M. — all with a South Asian flavor.

The weird thing is, Mushtaq Soofi says, while the old Lollywood session men are now winning plaudits abroad, no one back home knows or cares much about them.

“Music has to be recognized, and there is no patronage for music in Pakistan,” Soofi says. “That is why people are upset, musicians are upset. If you sing, if you are a singer or a vocalist, you get kind of fame and name and money, but if you are a musician, a pure musician, people don’t bother much about you.”

The only people who do bother about you tend to be the religious extremists, like the Taliban.

“It is very difficult for musicians, because music is considered forbidden because it is un-Islamic,” cellist Ghulam Abbas says. “Yet the same people think it is acceptable to kill people.”

Be that as it may, Abbas says he isn’t planning to hang up his cello again.