Carolina Performing Arts presents an amazing variety of high-level performers from around the world, and generally the experiences are terrifically satisfying, aesthetic, and often mind-stretching. The theater is run with hospitality in mind, so the patron experience is easy and pleasurable. But something went wrong on March 20th at the eagerly awaited concert by Hans Raj Hans, “Songs from the Land of Five Rivers.”
Hans had replaced Sanam Marvi, another singer of Sufi music, but the program book indicated songs made from the words of the great Sufi poets would remain the concert’s focus. The on-stage introduction by UNC professor Afroz Taj indicated the same. However, Hans is somewhat of a rock star for his renditions of Punjabi folk music and his Bollywood film songs. A spiritual first set was followed by a more raucous and lengthy second set.
That latter work was, apparently, what many people came for. The concert was to start at 8 p.m. – it was delayed for late arrivals. But even that was not nearly enough. Approximately one-quarter of the audience dribbled in between 8:10 and 9:10, forming a continuous interruption of the music for those who had bothered to come on time. Many audience members proceeded to behave as if at an outdoor arena rather than a concert hall – talking, changing seats to visit with friends, going in and out, even taking phone calls – and the ushers were kept busy running up and down the aisles attempting to stop the uncountable numbers of photo and video-makers.
As obnoxious as all that was, it was not the worst. There was a video crew doing a live recording. The videographer passed repeatedly in front of the stage. The director was all over the hall, up and down, back and forth. He interrupted the set order, demanding the artist do a particular song for him to record. At one point, he actually wandered out onto the stage, during the music, before climbing down to instruct the videographer. During the climactic finish to the most beautiful and final song in the first set, the videographer planted himself directly in front of the singer. When accosted in the aisle at intermission, he said “but people all over the world will want to see this.” Well, I had wanted to see it myself, and being in the hall, I think it was reasonable to believe I’d be able to do so. It was completely offensive to have been denied the experience of the performance I’d come to see.
Insult was added to injury during the second set. Taj came out again – I think he may have been explaining that there would be folk music and movie songs, but so much of the audience was talking that Taj’s mellifluous accented English was incomprehensible. But that was nothing. For the remainder of the evening, Hans joked with the audience, but never in English. The only English was a parody of a song, to demonstrate how silly it would sound. So, the second set was disturbed by the departures of non-Indian-language speakers. They did not miss much. The songs had much the same rhythm and general structure, one after another.
Hans Raj Hans has a powerful, attractive voice, deep but liquid, and remarkable wind. He also played a harmonium and was accompanied by a sharp tabla player, who kept his drumheads very tight; a fantastic guitar player who sometimes treated his instrument as if it were a sarangi; and a Rajasthani zither master. Sadly, the sound balance favored the tabla and the strings were often inaudible.
The theory that music is a universal language took a bad beating at this event.