People who have had a Near Death Experience claim that from the edge of death they are transported to the "Other Side" where they are surrounded by Light and Love. After some time, they are sent back to Earth with a special mission and renewed purpose. Life from that point on, they say, is better than anything they had ever experienced prior to nearly passing away.

The Sachal Ensemble, Pakistan’s former filmi orchestra turned jazz warriors, could be the first documented instance of Mass Near Death Experience. Just when the dum was about to leave their industry for good and they teetered on the edge of the abyss, they were transported to a heavenly place where something mysterious and magical happened. When they returned to Earth the Ensemble’s players were completely changed. They had been given a very special mission: spread love, joy and music all around the world.

Limbo Jazz (with Wynton Marsalis)


When the group made its appearance on the global stage in 2011, playing Dave Brubeck’s Take Five in sparkling white salwar qameez, they even looked like a band of heavenly angels. YouTube spread the word and an invitation to play with the esteemed jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis followed in quick order. They may have been given a mission but they had to work hard to learn a whole new language –jazz – which was not without its challenges. But as this clip attests, the men from Lahore not just learned the new art but mastered it. Just watch Marsalis smiling at Baqar Abbas’ baansuri wizardry.

Eleanor Rigby


In 2015, Oscar winning Pakistani director, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy with Andy Schocken made Song of Lahore, a heart-warming, toe tapping documentary about the Ensemble’s journey to New York and their sessions with Marsalis. On Friday, an accompanying album of the same name was released worldwide. While not exactly a soundtrack – the album covers entirely new material than that in the film – it is inspired by the positive vibrations the film and the Ensemble continue to generate.

This album is busting with joy. And adventure. In their previous albums the Ensemble have cleaved pretty close to jazz and pop standards (Take Five, Eleanor Rigby) with an occasional adventurous track (REM’s Everybody Hurts) slipped in.

In Song of Lahore all caution is thrown to the wind. "Popularity and familiarity be damned! Let’s work with the best material and artists available," seems to have been the mantra.

Be it their collaborators or the songs, The Ensemble has made impeccable and surprising choices. Bob Dylan yes. But Shelter From the Storm, his near Biblical fable of rejection and redemption? Amazing. Some hip R&B from the 1970s? Of course! But who would have pulled out one of the grooviest – but often overlooked – Allen Toussaint compositions ever, Yes We Can Can?

The song selection pushes Song of Lahore up a class or two from lightweight to heavyweight. Sachal is no longer a novelty act. Though the songs cover a broad landscape of genre including R&B, Blues, Reggae, Brazilian, Jazz and Pop, each track is fresh and possesses a distinct feel all its own. At the same time, the Ensemble creates a unifying sound that holds the individual tracks together and avoids slipping into pastiche.

Jim James
Love’s in Need of Love Today


Stevie Wonder opened his masterpiece, Songs in the Key of Life, with this song. It was never a hit but has been a fan favourite for 40 years. Another brilliant selection. The Ensemble is able to create a glamorous atmosphere for Jim James (My Morning Jacket) to make this moving plea for brotherly love. Gliding, shimmering strings and a chorus of backup singers chanting pa, pa, ga, ni, sa, ma, ni, sa transport you to a place of absolute bliss.

Clearly, Sachal Ensemble’s dalliance with Marsalis was no fluke. Some of popular music’s more interesting artists – Bilal, Susan Tedeschi, Madeleine Peyroux, Seu Jorge, Cibo Matto – appear as guests on the album. These are some of the most respected musicians in their field and yet the Ensemble backs them with the same confidence with which the Nelson Riddle Orchestra supported Sinatra in his prime.

We should not be too surprised. These guys cut their teeth in the film studios of Lollywood where ability to play any type of music was the basic job description.

The group is given the opportunity to get back to its roots with several purely desi tracks as well. The highlight of these is an exuberant remake of M Ashraf’s Sound of Wonder from the film Dekha Jayega (1976), which itself was a remake of the malangi anthem, Dam Mast Qalandar.

Sadly, the only real clunker on the album is Speak, an English recitation of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s famous poem, Bol. What is a muscled up political poem, is transformed by Meryl Streep into a dishwater-weak New Age whisper, more worthy of Demi Moore than one of the great actors of our generation.

This hiccup is more than made up for however, in the stunning rendition of the Negro Spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child. Canadian chanteuse Madeleine Peyroux gives an appropriately vulnerable performance before she is joined by a lonely male voice singing, Mai Ni Mein Kinu Ankhan, the Punjabi Sufi lament, which captures the exact spirit of the American song. This track alone is worth the price of the album. Simple genius.

Sean Lennon
What’s So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding


The producers of the album identify "love" as the main theme of the songs. True, but there is so much more in this wonderful record. In Bob Marley’s Get Up Stand Up (Cibo Matto) there is resistance and in Dylan’s Shelter from the Storm (Susan Tedeschi), redemption. Social consciousness gets an airing in Yes We Can Can (Bilal), while hope is beckoned in George Harrison’s Give Me Love (Seu Jorge). And don’t forget the greatest Punjabi virtue of all – joy! You’ll find oodles of it in Blue Pepper (Marsalis) and The Sound of Wonder.

As individual musicians, as well as representatives of a struggling industry and a wildly misunderstood country, the men of Sachal Ensemble have had to live every one of these emotions each and every day.

And we are all better off for them coming back from Near Death and spreading the word.