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Song Of Lahore: Pakistan’s Musicians Affirm Their Place In A Country That Threatens To Forget Them

By Akbar Shahid Ahmed

Asad Ali, the guitarist in the Sachal Jazz Ensemble, is one of the musicians featured in "Song of Lahore." | Mobeen Ansari

Asad Ali, the guitarist in the Sachal Jazz Ensemble, is one of the musicians featured in “Song of Lahore.” | Mobeen Ansari

The value of one’s soul is hard to measure, but Baqir Abbas, a musician in the Pakistani city of Lahore, has it worked out for himself. Abbas’ soul is slightly less precious to him than the delicately designed bamboo flutes he carves. “All the stories of the world will play from it, God willing,” he says, before kissing his latest instrument and touching it twice to its forehead.

Abbas explains his philosophy in “Song of Lahore,” a new documentary about an intergenerational community of musicians skilled in their own mix of traditional Pakistani music and the Western orchestral scores demanded by Lahore’s once-booming film industry. He and his fellow musicians “find God in music,” Abbas says.

Their critics do not, and the very act of practicing their craft now makes them targets in a more conservative Pakistan. Followers of the increasingly influential, hardline Deobandi school of thought in Sunni Islam consider music to be sinful and musicians to be apostates who have no place in an avowedly Muslim nation.

“Song of Lahore” is powerful because it shows these musicians do have a place in Pakistan.

Last week, the 82-minute documentary won multiple standing ovations and a joint second place in the Documentary Audience Award category at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. But the feature’s greatest triumph is that it proves the Deobandis wrong: These musicians are quintessentially Pakistani and essential to the nation’s cultural identity, Islam and all.

Worshippers gather at Lahore's historic Badshahi Mosque on April 25, 2015.

Worshippers gather at Lahore’s historic Badshahi Mosque on April 25, 2015.

Progressive Pakistanis who value their country’s musical heritage have been making that case for decades. Continue reading