Bringing back organic instruments – the true sound of the subcontinent: Sachal Studios
Myda Malik in a candid conversation with the maestro himself
Please tell us a little about yourself. What do you do? Tell us a bit about your daily routine.
I started my career as a lecturer in Punjab University. I got hold of a friend of mine and learned a lot from him about our culture, our music, our poetry that goes back a long way. And then there was this friend who said, “Okay, let’s start recording.” So we did. On most mornings after I wake up, I take a stroll in the garden, have breakfast, read a bit and then I head out to the studio at 2 pm. Work keeps me going, and this routine shapes my life.
What is Sachal Studio?
Inspired by the Abbey Road Studios in London, a state of the art music studio in Lahore is a landmark, for it heralds a new trend of post-production finesse that has hitherto been missing from the Pakistani music production process. I would describe it as actual music that’s classical with a touch of pop. It’s about those people, who were brought together for the revival of true music – mixture of two genres of music that are seemingly poles apart – jazz and classical. It is just instruments being used to enhance our own culture.
How did it all begin?
I was raised in a household, where good music was an object of admiration. My late father, Mian Abdul Majeed was an avid music fan, and from an early age I was introduced to the finer details of sub-continental classical music. My father was friends with Ustad Akbar Ali Khan and Jai Dev, who introduced me to the layers and nuances of Indian film music that continue to me. After the partition, my mother insisted that we move to Pakistan, so we left Delhi, but my father imbibed a lot of music and when he came to Pakistan, he had enough going in terms of business and was totally taken in by music.
I credit my movie producer late father for inculcating in me a deep love for music, both classical and contemporary, eastern and western.
Please explain how you think Sachal Studios plays a vital role in rekindling an interest in classical music.
Reinterpreting classical and folk melodies, sometimes with jazz influences, the group has shot to international acclaim, topping western charts and performing to sold out venues in New York, London and Paris. I do it for the love of music. Zia-ul-Haq, the mango guy destroyed Pakistan’s culture. He destroyed a Lollywood that gave hundreds of talented musicians jobs. There was a time, when the industry churned out up to 120 films in a year. Musicians, unemployed and frustrated, were hungry for a source of income. They had lost their jobs and went on to ply less lyrical trades – a cellist ran a tea stall – a violinist sold vegetables from his bicycle -others sold clothes or electrical parts and when Sachal was formed, they came running.
I believe that the pop scene is vibrant, but a bulk of those productions are ‘pure electronic noise’. This is why Sachal Studios is such an important intervention. It flies in the face of the state’s enforced desertification of culture – it seeks to encourage younger singers like Ali Raza and Ali Abbas amongst others, to become heirs of the traditions that have historically defined musical consciousness in the popular domain.
Can you tell us a little about ‘Song of Lahore’?
Most of the musicians played for film but, when the film industry disappeared, so did the music. This was like a magic age that fell apart. During the 80s, when the music scene sort of revived, it came back as ‘mechanical music. This was heart wrenching in a way because we had lost our roots. I was sick and tired of hearing it. The violin and flute had died – the tabla chez got replaced by drums.
My intention was to bring the organic instruments back– the true sound of the sub-continent. I tracked down the best musicians of Lollywood’s heyday, once revered into the studio once again. Pappu was working at a roadside tea-stall and the cello that he had was so beat up that the strings had been replaced by plastic wire. When I presented him with a brand new instrument, he started crying. “Can you give it to me to take it home so I can play it?” he asked longingly, not realizing that was my intention to begin with.
I can’t find a single piano player in Lahore, maybe in Pakistan, a real piano player. Someone comes and says, “Oh, I can play,” but he plays atrociously – he/she 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. They have full exposure. So this was the story behind ‘Song of Lahore’. It’s all about how these musicians were brought back.
This is first time ever that the orchestra, jazz ensemble and recording artistes were brought together in one concert. How was the experience?
It was pretty good. We were very lucky to have gentlemen like Ali Raza and Ali Abbas performing with us. I wanted to create awareness – the world does not know that I compose songs as well. This time we showcased everything we had on one platform. In the future, we would like to present Jazz and our recording artist’s one at a time. We have released music by Farida Khanum, the late Mehnaz, EssaKhelvi. There’s a lot going on.
Why did you invite Attaullah Essakhelvi to perform with you? How does his singing and music play into your musical philosophy?
He’s a music giant. Above all, he gathers the poor and sings for them, I love that about him. He’s a very dear friend of mine. Essakhelvi exclusively played his latest song, which I composed at the concert and its part of Sachal Studio.
Have your efforts to build an orchestra been rewarding?
Oh Yes! We’re the only full orchestra across the sub-continent, who can do live performances when it comes to Jazz, Folk and Classical music. In Pakistan, we have picked up the tradition of serious music of yesteryear, and have rejuvenated it. Finally, one gets to hear the endangered violin, instead of the plain electronic synthesiser, in works produced by Sachal Studios.
Were you surprised at the level international stardom you achieved with your jazz covers?
Totally surprised! It felt exhilarating to be part of the French Jazz Festival. When Universal Music approached me to do an album, which is recorded under World Music Genre, I was completely overjoyed. Though the journey has been extremely tough over a period of eight years, the orchestra performs at the world music scene with full confidence. It puts a new perspective on Pakistan’s image as well, since we are mostly portrayed in a negative way in the news.
Which Sachal Studio piece is your personal favourite? And why?
It’s hard to pick one but a poem by Riaz Ali Khan called “Shah Husain”- I just love it. Another, is a jazz number, created by myself called “Shalimar”. It’s very close to the songs that we are trying to bring out. I gave it this name because the place itself is very open and inviting to people. Anyone who’s anybody can easily go there.