I feel bad. People have been finding my blog by typing in key words surrounding the Gurdas Maan show at the Elsinore Theater in Salem. The reason they find my blog is because I typed just those words a while back mentioning that I had seen the show but at the time I said I was going to comment more later. Well, I never got back around to it and I’ve been feeling lax in my duties. I’m probably the worst person on earth to review the show and so much time has passed I am struggling with feeling that if I had written about it at the time then there would have been a lot more details to share. The theater is gorgeous. I had no idea it even existed. Anjali and I got there late and had to buy $75 “VIP” (not $100 VIP, VIP) tickets since the $50 tickets were all sold. I’m now wondering if Indian promoters usual obsession with different layers of VIP tickets and seating has something to do with a conscious or unconscious recreation of the caste system and the need for hierarchy in the Indian mind. Or just a profiteer’s desire to make some money from others stuck in such thinking. Regardless we ended up in the middle balcony. Gurdas Maan was already performing. I think the show got started an hour or so late so we didn’t miss much. The white ticket seller seemed a little flabbergasted at how late the show got started but I imagine she hasn’t worked many Indian events.
The sound was good. The level was slightly more than a classical performance but not anywhere near a rock show. There were 10 or more musicians. Several male backing singers with percussion. A dholak and a dhol and maybe another. No tumbi but a keyboard and two guitars. The songs were mostly quite fast and as furiously as the drummers were playing it never got that crazy simply because the house speakers were kept at relatively restrained levels. The band was expertly trained and rehearsed, songs rising and falling in volume with a gesture from Gurdas Maan. It made me think of James Brown and his old bands. No song maintained a volume level. The songs would alternate between portions with Gurdas singing and portions where the band let it rip. When Gurdas was singing the volume level of the instruments would drop to a hush allowing for maximum focus on and absorbtion of, his words. Here is the tricky part. My Panjabi is currently limited to a handful of words and I can’t make any comments about the content of the songs and how authentic, folky and cultural they were or weren’t. I would say from the style of the performance that they were certainly importantant to Gurdas Maan and that communicating those words to the audience was paramount. At one point a young Panjabi leaned over and asked me if I understood the words to which I had to respond in the negative.
There were many Indian families in attendance, mostly Panjabis. I have been to other local performances such as Balkar Sidhu and Surinder Shinda and this was by far the most well-attended. There were packs of Gabroos trying to get rowdy despite the overall tenor of the event. Many families looked on in consternation. The dancing would get so furious in one pack of Gabroos right at the edge of the balcony that Anjali and I expected one to fall over at any moment. This was on the staffs’ minds as well as they kept speaking to the group trying to get them to sit down. There was another group to our left that was seemingly allowed freer reign to dance throughout the performance and I’m not sure what accounted for the different levels of tolerance from the staff.
Because of my limited Panjabi I do not know whether Gurdas Maan was performing culture or pop or both. I know that pop Bhangra artists with traditional training and older Panjabi folk musicians and singers will lament how many of the rhythms and lyrical subjects of old are thrown away in favor of an endless string of “debased” songs designed for dancing in the clubs and being played on the radio. I think a linguistic and cultural insider would have a great deal to say about where Gurdas fell in this spectrum and I regret to inform you that I am not that guy. He did sing a Bhajan in praise of Hindu deities at the beginning of the show which I found quite fascinating at an event that I imagined would be mostly Sikh. The nature of religious expression and tolerance in India is very different than in the States for sure. I am not enough of an expert on Sikhism to know how common shout-outs to Hindu gods are.
Gurdas definitely played with the crowd. He sang to children and ended up surrounded with a pack of them at one point. One little boy was a spirited and natural Bhangra dancer. Gurdas loved singing to one of the white female bouncers on the side of the stage. I think he reached out to some elders up front as well. He played for 2 and 1/2 hours or more. There was an intermission after which all the promoters surrounded him on stage, gave him a bouquet and had several photos taken by a very serious and professional Sikh photographer who had been working the event all night.
I wish I had more lyrical and cultural insight into the performance than I did but I certainly don’t regret seeing one of the biggest Panjabi singers of all time with a full band. In Salem!