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This Pakistani ensemble is uniting the world through Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley

“We find God in music,” said Baqir Abbas of the Sachal Ensemble, invoking a feeling of transcendence that humans have experienced since they first started making music thousands of years ago.

Throughout time, music has transported musicians and listeners, allowing people to enter states of mind that their environments might otherwise prohibit. It’s a universal language that bridges cultures and brings people together. And it's the cohesive force behind Global Citizen's biggest initiatives, especially the annual Global Citizen Festival. 

This ability to connect the world is at the heart of the soon-to-be released (May 20th) Song of Lahore album that accompanies the Song of Lahore documentary, directed by Oscar-winning director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken. The album features artists such as Wynton Marsalis, Meryl Streep and Madeleine Peyroux to Susan Tedeschi & Derek Trucks, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and Wilco’s Nels Cline, among many others across Jazz, Rock, R&B and Americana.

At both the heart of the film and the album is the Sachal Ensemble, a group of Pakistani musicians, in which Baqir Abbas masterfully plays the flute.

The Sachal Ensemble has always used music as a source of hope and unity. The group’s members grew up in Lahore, a city with a rich artistic history. During their youth they thrived in the vibrant creative scene, but in the late 1970s, strict enforcement of Islamic law all but banned music that wasn’t tied to religion.

Musicians struggled to practice their craft in the repressed environment that followed and Lahore began to lose its connection to the global music scene.

Decades later, in the early 2000s, the Sachal Ensemble found one another. They had all secretly cultivated their skills in the intervening years and were ready to revive Lahore’s status as a place of great creativity.

To attract a global audience, the group began blending classical and folk music with jazz. Before long, the group’s interpretation of the song “Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet became a hit on Youtube.

Brubeck called the piece, "the most interesting and different recording of ‘Take Five’ that I’ve ever heard.”

The group was soon invited to perform at the Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz.

In the documentary this moment is a sort of apotheosis, a point of redemption after many years of making music that went unheralded.

It also acts as a starting point for the ambitious album to come.

Billed as “East-meets-West,” the album reimagines iconic songs from legends like Duke Ellington, Bob Marley, Nina Simone, George Harrison, Michael Jackson, Allen Toussaint, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder and Elvis Costello.

A stand-out track is a recreation of the famous Stevie Wonder song, “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” sung by Jim James of My Morning Jacket.

Throughout the album, the Sachal Ensemble collaborates with US-based session musicians, and the broad range of artists featured on the album is a powerful testament to music’s ability to unite humanity.

Ultimately, the album is the work of global citizens, people who recognize that all humans have far more in common than not.

The album arrives at an important time. Global Citizen is currently campaigning to reduce gender inequality around the world by fighting against repressive laws. 

The Song of Lahore story is a reminder that people from all over the world can embrace one another and achieve amazing things together.