Last night Babbu Maan played the first leg of his 2010 UK tour at the Aston Arena in Birmingham to a sell-out audience in excess of 3000 people. The queues to enter were long, really long; some ticket-holders were clearly upset at their allocated seat; the location was surrounded by a total of zero restaurants/cafes/shops; and Babbu Maan did not take to the stage until 9pm. Yet this was one of the greatest Punjabi concerts the UK has ever seen. Moreover, I believe in years to come this concert will be looked upon as a pivotal moment in revolutionising the sphere of Punjabi politics and media, in the UK at least.
The sound was scintillating and bar the lowest row of the stalls encircling the arena, a relatively uninterrupted view of the stage made for a captivated audience throughout. The anchor was engaging and ably roused the crowd with lyrical magic before Maan took to the stage. The musicians excelled, unsurprisingly, as might be expected from a line-up that included the luminaries behind hits from the likes of Miss Pooja. I had wondered if this eight-piece ensemble would overpower Babbu Maan on stage, but it was quite the opposite. The performance was one of second-nature to an outfit that have now taken in parts of the Middle-east, Australasia and Europe together. In tune with each other, but more importantly mindful of the stage presence that Babbu Maan brings to a live show.
He was quite simply devastating. There was no single wavering of his voice or relaxation of his projection throughout, but of course his commentary and banter with the audience is as much a part of his show – and in this regard he set to task in a manner unseen here outside of Sikh dhadi stages. He blasted fellow singers and Punjabi DJs with equal aplomb, questioning there ability to entertain when so many of the videos they produced consisted of them shaking their hands/fingers/forearms into space. Punjabi politicians, Messers Badal and Captain Amrinder Singh were challenged for doing equally little to prevent the ever widening gap between the minsicule few elite and the mass who exist daily hand-to-mouth. Further still, Maan took the opportunity once again to speak out against the devilry of music/film piracy and the concerns that a free market of internet content can bring to economic models in the entertainment business. On a number of occasions I held my breath, waiting to be accosted on behalf of either or both journalists (of which I am not one) and internet operators (of which I clearly am one!) But we got off lightly. Fellow broadcasting company (albeit old-school satellite version) Brit Asia did not fare the same. In an embarassing attack for the Birmingham-based station, Maan savaged the channel for charging his label a higher price to air music videos, an action he believes they took for his rejecting an invitation to an awards ceremony hosted by the channel earlier this month. Coupled with his refusal to accept an award that he further branded meaningless, Maan mocked Brit Asia for the attempted intimidatory tactics that followed and to immense crowd approval told the station not to play his videos again if they considered themselves respectable. (The actual phrase he used was a common Punjabi challenge, but the intention is as stated here!)
It is diffcult to review the performance without making it sound entirely like a Babbu Maan-love-in; it really was that astounding. But if there is one area for criticism, it has to be his dancing. It’s not bad, but it’s not great either! A strange mix of Irish jig and Native American movement, he does make it work, but you can’t help thinking that if he refreshed that aspect of his stage performance, he really would be a flawless live act – and perhaps that is a scary reality for which reason the current dance steps are acceptable. Although, at one point the revelry did cause Maan to fall into the dhol. Fortunately the musician held on to avoid any injury to either instrument or singer! On that note, there might be some who question whether he was perhaps intoxicated in some manner on stage. We’ve all heard plenty on this topic, but in my humble opinion he was clean. I have many undesirable recollections of looking into the eyes of chemically-high males and believe me this wasn’t one.
The venue wasn’t great , but Maan made it work. That being said, the promoter will surely be looking long and hard at alternative venues in Birmingham before opting for the Aston Arena in the future. I felt for them as they have worked incredibly hard to arrange the tour and on this opening night were met with some stiff resistance by the venue. At one point I looked across a busy foyer just after doors had opened to see the promoter arguing with the venue manager who wanted to open the bar to the general public. It wasn’t the last time in the evening that I saw frustration scream from the faces of the promotion team in trying to deal with the venue’s management. I’d guess similar scenes wouldn’t be repeated at the Wembley Arena or Glasgow’s Concert Hall which are more befitting venues for an artist of Maan’s stature.
Maan, who was here just last month to launch film ‘Ekam, Son of Soil’, has seen his stock rise quietly over the last decade with film releases including Hashar and Hawayyein, alongside albums such as ‘Saun Di Jhadi’ and ‘Aou Sare Nachiye’, and of course the infamous ‘Singh Better than King’. I say quietly, but of course that should be amended to quietly until November 2009, when the release of ‘Ik Baba Nanak Si’ put Babbu Maan into the spotlight like never before. Taking on those responsible for the atrocities of 1984 (in Hawayyein) and challenging the prevailing prejudice against the Punjabi contribution to South Asian freedom from British rule (in Ashiqan di Line) was nothing in comparison to taking on the corrupt nature of India’s powerful and elite. The controversy surrounding the song only really emerged because of the response from both Ranjit Singh Dhadrianwala and the one-time UK resident Tarsem Singh Moranwali. But the wide-ridicule with which there comments were met indicate that Babbu Maan has arrived in a market of Punjabi entertainment that has been extinct for almost half a century; namely that of mass-appeal, socio-political folk music. Sometimes subtle, sometimes coarsely blunt, these lyrical manifestations give a very public voice to the conversations that can be heard daily around a Punjabi ‘motor’ or airing the occurences that plague society in general. The raw honesty behind his words has found favour with Punjabis and Sikhs from across the globe who are beyond frustration with the unethical systems and order of law that they find on regular sojourns to the sub-continent. But it is with Punjabi citizens themselves, including the thousands of Punjabis temporarily or illegally abroad (the inappropriately-labelled faujis) that Maan’s lyrics have found mass, almost fanatical support. There is a growing sense amongst mostly rural communities and people that they should not accept less than they deserve, which I have found to be humbly no more than they are putting into society.
It’s not every day that you can be entertained, inspired and edcuated in a 3 hour show; in Punjabi music circles it’s practically unheard of. But Babbu Maan manages to achieve it. His level of influence has been enhanced, not just his quantative reach. The UK tour kicked off with a bang and is likely to continue explosively for those who get the chance to experience it. The political dialogue of tomorrow, our social vibration and economic development, and the realignment of our ethical compass is being revolutionised today by rapidly changing technology in this rampant age of open information where entertainers have blurred the lines of education. For Punjabis and Sikhs, there are few luminaries who can instigate thought, debate and action in this way quite like Babbu Maan.