Fans who gathered for an intimate, private gig by the Sachal Jazz Ensemble at London's King's Place on Tuesday were left mildly surprised - not to mention ever-so-slightly disappointed, at least to begin with.
Instead of one of their now-famous jazz covers the Ensemble began the set with its take on Lata Mangeshkar's 'Allah Tero Naam, Ishwar Tero Naam', from the 1961 Bollywood war drama 'Hum Dono'.
The song - described by the legendary 'Lataji' as her finest ever work - has little to do with jazz but it was perhaps the most appropriate way to begin a gig that was meant to celebrate the phenomenal global success of a group of musicians who have enchanted fans across the world since bursting on to the world stage in 2011.
Izzat Majid, the brainchild behind Sachal Jazz, described 'Allah Tero Naam, Ishwar Tero Naam' ("Allah is your name, Ishwar is your name") as one of the greatest South Asian compositions of the 20th Century.
Written and produced by a relatively unknown composer named Jaidev Verma, the original is a gentle remonstration against the social and religious cynicism that tore apart the sub-continent post-Partition, a plea for the region's peoples to overlook the boundaries that divided them.
The Sachal Ensemble's stirring strings-dominated cover in turn was a celebratory statement of how this group of virtuosos overcame myriad obstacles to marry seemingly incongruous musical genres and enthral people of all hues and creeds around the world.
Well, at least most hues and creeds.
Despite selling out venues such as the Royal Elizabeth Hall and the Barbican Centre in London as well as the Lincoln Centre in New York, topping the iTunes chart and racking up millions of YouTube hits, Sachal Jazz remains a mystery for many of us Diaspora South Asians, through absolutely no fault of the wonderfully talented musicians who make up the Ensemble.
"Desi's don't want to know about it", says Jay Visvadewa, the veteran London-based music promoter who has worked tirelessly to bring the Ensemble to the global stage.
"It's strange because the orchestra and their music is very much a part of our heritage. The West has embraced it because we have created something wholly new by fusing eastern classical music with a quintessentially western genre. And that's also a great way for all generations of South Asians to continue to enjoy eastern music as well. But it has really surprised me that the Diaspora community constitute only a small percentage of our live audiences", Visvadewa adds.
It's an anomaly that also causes a not-inconsiderable amount of consternation for Majid, the wealthy, Oxford-educated Pakistani investor and music lover who established Lahore's Sachal Studios to provide a home for his country's classically-trained musicians whose work had been - often brutally - suppressed during Zia Ul Haq's notoriously austere regime.
"It's disappointing that the Diaspora is yet to embrace it. It's most surprising because jazz and eastern classical music are quite similar. It might not seem like it but the structure of both genres are very much the same.
"The most amazing thing for me when I first started working with these guys was when they immediately recognized that similarity and said, 'Oh my god this is something that we do every day!'. There's nothing complex about it. It's good, simple, universal music. I remember hearing Dave Brubeck's 'Take Five' (the Ensemble's very first jazz cover which went viral online) through a tea stall in Lahore in the 1960's. If tea boys could enjoy it then, there's no reason all of us can't today, particularly this fusion of East and West".
If anything, the eastern infusion - particularly the Tabla and the Sitar - seems to rid jazz of some of its more esoteric elements which often confounds the average music lover.
Sachal's version of 'Limbo Jazz', by the legendary American jazz musician and composer Duke Ellington is a classic case in point.
Ellington's original is beautiful yet sparse. The Sachal Ensemble's exceptional lead Tabla player Ballu Khan, sitar maestro Nafees Khan and its gifted flautist Baqar Abbas help lift the song to a whole new realm, infusing 'Limbo Jazz' with a vibrancy that was previously absent.
The story goes even further with other classics.
Take Henry Mancini's iconic Pink Panther theme song: Sachal's version - oddly enough - seems to heighten the sense of mystery and mischief that makes the original so appealing more than a half century after it was first composed.
The Sachal treatment isn't limited to classics that most music lovers would find obscure.
Among their recent covers are interpretations of 'Imagine' by John Lennon and R.E.M.'s 'Everybody Hurts', both of which have turned out even more evocative than the originals; and a vibrant, Sitar-dominated cover of The Beatle's 'Eleanor Rigby' which makes McCartney's excellent original seem almost threadbare.
The Ensemble's greatest achievement has been to package these classics in a way that appeals to new audiences, a fact evident on Tuesday night: the Delhi girl who thought R.E.M. was a military term; the Kolkatta-born PR executive who had never heard of Duke Ellington or Dave Brubeck and the South Indian man who now sees that infernal pink-hued, French-speaking panther in a whole new light.
And, everyone else who thought that "jazz" and "classical" music could only be enjoyed by a sartorially-challenged elite who spoke in tongues and read sheet music in the loo.
Along the way Sachal Jazz has also given a new lease of life to a bunch of gifted musicians and in turn helped preserve one of the most important aspects of Pakistani - and by extension South Asian - culture - its classical music, a genre that is world-renowned for its beauty and complexity.
In a world filled with manufactured music spewed out by a conveyor-belt of "singers" and "musicians" with acronyms instead of names we, as a community, have a responsibility to embrace and celebrate the likes of the Sachal Jazz Ensemble because it is our heritage, carefully and lovingly evolved in this case.
Contrary to what many think, the Ensemble's music is not unfashionable or old-fashioned.
If anything, it's highly desirable because it is evocative, intelligent, stylish and utterly original.
But above all, it's universal.Read More »