I first heard the Sachal Jazz Ensemble on YouTube. Most people did. A group of Pakistani musicians placing their own spin on five and a half minutes of the most popular jazz music ever written is pretty difficult to ignore. At first it was novel, then it was catchy, but always it was unique. If the inevitable comparisons with Marmite were to be made, I was happy to take a piece of toast and spread the Sachal Jazz Ensemble all over it.
Apparently, I’m not the only one who felt this way.
Almost every chair in the Queen Elizabeth Hall was occupied on Tuesday night to see the ensemble play its world premiere performance. It was hardly surprising, given that Sachal’s rendition of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five has received over 340,000 views on YouTube in a single year, which, I’d tender, means it’s already reached more western ears than almost any other sound wave to have emanated from Pakistan.
I’ve become used to the charming humility that many South Asian performers assume, but there was an added dimension to this group’s humbleness. For a long time, during General Zia ul Haq’s dictatorial regime in Pakistan, these musicians had to set down their instruments and concentrate on forms of employment besides music, which would have made a performance at something like Alchemy far beyond any realm of possibility. If anyone could be forgiven for walking on stage with a defiant swagger, therefore, it’s these guys. Yet they didn’t.
The ensemble somehow reminded me of the big band I used to play in while at school, albeit the sound they produced was, inevitably, very different. The stage was crammed with performers – I lost count at 25 – and they were all following large manuscripts which, presumably, translated Western notes into the musical language of the East. Each musician concentrated intently on their copy in the same way I used to stare furiously at my own music stand, mindful that if I lost my place I’d likely never again find it, while a conductor stood at the front of the stage with flailing arms, trying to keep everyone in check.
But this was hardly surprising, serving as a constant reminder that despite their tight, balanced, studio-polished sound, this ensemble are very much breaking new ground, doing something incredibly innovative and fresh. And they’re doing it with jazz, no less; not rock, not pop: jazz. I began to wonder whether it would be possible to turn the tables, to interpret South Asian music through a Western mouthpiece, but somehow I doubt it would be done quite so well, a testament to the group’s outstanding ability.
During Jude Kelly’s introduction to Pete Lockett’s concert on Sunday, Southbank Centre’s Artistic Director described Alchemy as an exploration of the dialogue and ongoing exchange between English and South Asian cultures, a sentiment that seemed particularly pertinent to this performance. The Sachal Jazz Ensemble have essentially created an entirely new genre of music, building a bridge over which musical enthusiasts can cross from East to West and back, and I hope it’ll be used as a gateway by listeners from both sides to discover music they may otherwise never have heard.