Sometimes the best ideas are the most unlikely. It takes a special kind of mind to pick up Dave Brubeck’s wonderful but overfamiliar 1959 classic, Take Five, give it a sitar, tabla and swooping strings makeover, and take it to the top of the iTunes jazz chart. The Sachal Jazz Ensemble, who also do something similar to The Girl from Ipanema and Burt Bacharach’s This Guy’s in Love with You, ought to be wrong but sound so right. Now the group are travelling from their base inLahore,PakistantoLondonto play their first ever concert in the west.
The musicians are appearing as part of the Southbank’s Alchemy festival, its third annual celebration of arts from the subcontinent, which this year also features dance-rock band Asian Dub Foundation, Mercury-nominated singer Susheela Raman and Toronto MC Humble the Poet. That there aren’t more Alchemy performers based inPakistanitself is a sign of the nation’s dwindling cultural status since the dictatorship of General Zia ul Haq began to restrict the arts in the late Seventies.
This is a problem that the man behind Sachal Jazz is spending significant sums of money to fight against. Izzat Majeed, 61, is a Pakistani Muslim who studiedPPEatOxford, lectured at the University of thePunjabinLahore, became an advisor to a Saudi oil minister and then set up an investment firm, Alyph Ltd, inLondon. “But music was always there,” he tells me. Now semi-retired and living most of the year near Regent’s Park when he’s not in Lahore, what he calls his “labour of love” has been to rediscover the best musicians who were forced to take other jobs when the Pakistani film industry, Lollywood, collapsed. LikePakistan’s Blues Brothers or the late-blooming stars of the Buena Vista Social Club, he’s been putting the band back together and providing the facilities for them to record around 30 albums of traditional and jazz music since the middle of the last decade.
He found them running tea stalls, selling electrical goods or vegetables. “They had lost everything,” he says. “Our basic genre of filmmaking was musicals, and that was snapped by the regime. There was no patronage left. We think we are more liberal now in culture but that is a joke again.”
In 2002 he started recording in 16 studios, each as small as a bedroom, in Lahore, but by 2005 he had spent over USD2 million to build the state-of-the-art Sachal Studios, named after the Sufi poet Sachal Sarmast, a few minutes down the road. He received technical assistance from Abbey Road Studios, where he still takes his albums to be mastered and record other instruments from outside Pakistani musical culture such as piano and brass.
All was going fine for Sachal Music (although “I haven’t earned a penny yet,” says Majeed) but it was when they turned their attentions towards western sounds that the wider world started to pay attention. A jazz fan since the age of eight, when he saw the Dave Brubeck Quartet play inLahoreas part of a cultural visit organised by the United States Information Agency, Majeed thought that songs such as Errol Garner’s jazz standard Misty and bossa nova favourite Desafinado could appeal with a new Lollywood flavour.
He was right. There’s a novelty element to the album Interpretations of Jazz Standards & Bossa Nova, of course, a Seventies cocktail hour feel, but there’s a warm, languorous glow to the music that takes it somewhere deeper than parody. The massed strings suit the romantic melodies, while the sitar won’t be a cultural shock to any Beatles fans. “I didn’t choose the songs to appeal to a western audience. I chose them to appeal to myself. That’s where it begins,” says Majeed. A framed note from Brubeck in the studio reads: “This is the most interesting and different recording of Take Five that I have ever heard.”
Majeed admits he’s not musical himself. “I am a total ignoramus in terms of music education, but I know what I like.” He takes an Executive Producer role on the albums. A strong belief in his own taste leads him to dismiss modern sounds altogether. “New genres emerge that don’t make any sense to me. I don’t regard Bollywood today as music to be honest. It’s just an electronic noise with a beat at its heart, boom boom all the time.”
His performers were less familiar with the jazz that he loves, but learned fast. “Jazz is not commonly listened to in the subcontinent. Brubeck was innovative, using the 5/4 time structure for Take 5 instead of the traditional 4/4. Our classical musicians took very easily to those patterns and structures.”
Now they are coming here, an Asian oddity that’s winning western hearts. Sachal Jazz’s Take Five has been watched over 330 thousand times on YouTube – an impressive figure for such a specialist sound.
Majeed is realistic about his chances of changingPakistan’s weakened cultural scene in a wider sense (“We are just a drop in the ocean.”) and admits that their albums are more popular in theUSandUKthan at home. Yet for giving a handful of great forgotten musicians the chance to play again, he’ll still deserve an ovation at the Southbank next month.
sachal-music.com. Sachal Jazz – Interpretations of Jazz Standards & Bossa Nova is out now on Sachal Music. April 17, Queen Elizabeth Hall, SE1 (0844 875 0073, southbankcentre.co.uk). Part of the Alchemy Festival, April 12-22, southbankcentre.co.uk/alchemy
FIVE GREAT COVERS ALBUMS
NOUVELLE VAGUE – Nouvelle Vague (Peacefrog, 2004)
The shock value of the French band’s debut has since been softened by its ubiquity in hotel lobbies the world over. Still, the idea of remoulding classic punk and post-punk (Love will Tear us Apart, Teenage Kicks etc) in sunny bossa nova style remains a brilliant one that has sustained a long career.
VARIOUS – Tom Middleton Presents Crazy Covers Vols.1/2 (UMTV, 2005/2007)
The motherlode of unlikely cover versions arrives on these two double albums compiled by dance DJ and producer Middleton. You may not have realised how much you need a frantic Latino take on Michael Jackson’s Beat It by Senor Coconut, or Hard N’Phirm’s country Radiohead medley Rodeohead, until you hear them.
EASYSTARALL-STARS – Dub Side of the Moon (Easy Star, 2002)
Getting stoned to Pink Floyd becomes even easier with this skanking take on the classic album, complete with smoking noises instead of the cash register on Money. If you’ve got the munchies for more, the same band have also done full reggae versions of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and OK Computer.
HAYSEED DIXIE – A Hillbilly Tribute to AC/DC (Dualtone, 2001)
It doesn’t sound like a sustainable idea, but Hayseed Dixie’s knee-slapping bluegrass versions of rock classics have spawned nine albums to date. This debut keeps it simple by focusing on one band, though they’ve subsequently reworked everyone from Aerosmith to Queen.
DANGER MOUSE – The Grey Album (2004, streaming at archive.org/details/DjDangerMouse-TheGreyAlbum)
Something far more inventive than a straight covers album, Gnarls Barkley man Brian Burton made his name with this collection of raps from Jay’Z’s Black Album spliced with cut-up music from The Beatles’ White Album. Copyright issues mean it’s never been officially available, but it’s still all over the internet.