The billionaire behind Sachal Studios Orchestra

November 8, 2015

Instep talks to Izzat Majeed, the man responsible for bringing together a group of traditional musicians/singers and forming Sachal Studios Orchestra and its offshoot, the Sachal Jazz Ensemble

The billionaire behind Sachal Studios Orchestra

Lahore’s Waris Road wasn’t always the dingy back street that it’s now become, lined with auto repair shops crowded onto a single-carriage lane that can be a challenge to navigate even for experienced drivers. Ask an older resident of the city, and they will recall how Waris Road was once the poshest residential part of Lahore, a melting pot of religions and cultures, an area where some of the city’s greatest and most creative minds dwelled.

It was the part of town where the Phailbuses and the Khannas, the Coopers and the Makkis co-existed; the road that photographer Shahid Zaidi, columnist Masood Hassan and veteran actress Samina Ahmed called home. Its current residents have little knowledge of the area’s past cultural significance - they are, in fact, blissfully unaware that Waris Road hasn’t completely let go of its artistic lineage just yet.

Ask one of the many mechanics huddled outside their workshops, steaming cups of tea in hand, where Sachal Studios is located and they shrug their shoulders dismissively, "No idea." Yet there it is, the multi-storey building standing tall in their midst. A blue flag flutters bravely from the roof, perhaps a symbol of the battle that goes on within every single day - the battle to reclaim and preserve Lahore’s rich musical heritage.

This is Sachal Studios, home to a group of traditional musicians and singers brought together by a benefactor named Izzat Majeed to form the Sachal Studios Orchestra and its offshoot, the Sachal Jazz Ensemble. 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.

Strains of harmonium mixed joyously with the thumps of a tabla waft out to greet me as I enter the expansive space, all polished wood and glass walls, in sharp contrast to the jumble of concrete and mechanics I’ve just left outside. A group of musicians is practising for an upcoming recording, a wedding song that has a particularly energetic tempo and quintessentially desi lyrics. "It has all the makings of a hit," remarks Izzat musingly as he listens. He would know, because he’s the man responsible for Sachal’s success.

A billionaire businessman with a flair for the arts, Izzat Majeed credits his movie producer father for inculcating in him a deep love for music, both classical and contemporary, Eastern and Western. "Growing up in Delhi, I remember musical evenings in our house where renowned musician Ali Akbar, son of the legendary Allauddin Khan and a great friend of my father, was often present." That is one of his earliest childhood memories, succeeded by many others that went on to shape his musical influences.

"1958, Nido’s Hotel, Lahore (where the Avari now stands) hosted jazz singer Dave Brubeck and I accompanied my father to the concert. That’s how I got hooked on to jazz," he recalls.

Already considered eccentric for having poured millions of rupees from his own pocket into constructing a state-of-the-art studio, for which engineers were flown in from Abbey Road Studios to provide technical advice, Majeed decided to take it one step further and mix two genres of music that were seemingly poles apart - jazz and classical.

"What people don’t realize is that the structure of our classical music and that of Western jazz is very similar," he explains. "Both genres are built on the same foundation." Which is why reimagining jazz classics with traditional instruments and melodies made perfect sense.

Within a year of the studio’s existence (created in 2008), The Sachal Jazz Ensemble had stormed its way to international stardom with their jazz covers. It’s cover of Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ compelled the jazz great himself to declare it "the most interesting and different recording of ‘Take Five’ that I’ve ever heard." In a note written to Izzat a year before his death in 2012, Brubeck continued, "Listening to this exotic version brings back wonderful memories of Pakistan where my quartet played in 1958. East is East and West is West but through music the twain meet. Congratulations!"

Izzat Majeed (L) and Sabir (R) during a rehearsal at the Sachal Studios in Lahore.
Izzat Majeed (L) and Sabir (R) during a rehearsal at the Sachal Studios in Lahore.

Legendary music producer Quincy Jones, when he chanced upon a Sachal Studios CD, was similarly transported to a Pakistan where music and dance thrived. "The CD reminded me of my first trip to Karachi in 1956 watching Chatur Lal on tabla and my brother Ravi Shankar. It brought back amazing memories," he told Majeed during a personal communication.

And therein lies the key ingredient in the success of the studio. While Majeed himself refuses to hide behind lofty ideas of what led to his motivation and investment in the set-up ("I do it for the love of music," he states simply), it’s clear that Sachal Studios has played a vital role in rekindling an interest in classical music that harks back to a Pakistan many remember fondly but few can imagine existing again.

"Zia-ul-Haq destroyed Pakistan’s culture. He destroyed Lollywood, that gave hundred of talented musicians jobs. There was a time when the industry churned out up to 120 films in a year; now it’s considered a good year if we make 10." Musicians, unemployed and frustrated, were hungry for a source of income as well as an outlet for their creativity, says Majeed, and when Sachal was formed, they came running.

For musicians like the young Pappu, the orchestra’s cello player, Majeed is a saviour who has given him a new lease on life. "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," recalls the businessman.

Others, such as Sabir Ali, were not so hard up but craved a consistent source of income. The middle-aged Ali, whose henna-dyed hair provide a striking contrast to the emerald drop studded in his ear, recalls an impressive career composing for the likes of Ataullah Eesa Khelvi and Hadiqa Kiyani. But with record labels fast putting a stop to releasing new albums, such opportunities were drying up. "Since Sachal came into being, it means that we’re never out of work," he says.

Film directors Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken letting loose with the Sacchal Jazz Ensemble post the screening of Song of Lahore in New York.
Film directors Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken letting loose with the Sacchal Jazz Ensemble post the screening of Song of Lahore in New York.

It also means that his son, Shafaqat Ali, can think of following in his father’s footsteps, unlike the children of countless musicians who have had to look for jobs outside their family’s generational occupation of music-making, no longer considered a viable source of income.

While the West has lapped up the orchestra’s rags-to-riches origins story, with references to "talibanisation" and "oppositions from conservative forces" thrown in for good measure, sometimes out of context, and propelled the musicians to worldwide acclaim, recognition back home has been much slower in coming. But that’s set to change now that Academy-award winner Sharmeen-Obaid Chinoy has chosen the studio as the subject for her latest documentary. Song of Lahore premiered in New York City on the 3rd of November at an event hosted by Meryl Streep and is in the long-list for 2016’s Oscar nominations for Best Documentary.

The day I visit, members of the Jazz Ensemble are leaving for the airport on their way to the USA to attend the premiere and the studio’s phones are ringing off the hooks. Friends and admirers are calling in to congratulate Majeed on the achievement. While he’s gracious in accepting the compliments, you can sense a hint of impatience in his demeanour. At one point, he has to jokingly remind a caller that Sachal Studio was creating music long before the documentary was conceived.

Like it or not, it has taken some prodding from Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and a mention of the Oscars to spark renewed interest in Sachal Studios and their music within Pakistan. From a marketing point-of-view, Song of Lahore has done wonders for the group and Majeed, who rarely bogs himselfTma man behind  down with such banal and practical aspects of running the show, is happy that his musicians are getting the recognition they deserve on home ground. As for himself, he’s content to let the music be his sole reward.

This article was published in The News on Sunday on November 8, 2015 with the title For the love of music.

The billionaire behind Sachal Studios Orchestra