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Red Baraat’s Brooklyn Bhangra

By Deepti Sivakumar Email By Deepti Sivakumar
April 2013
Red Baraat’s Brooklyn Bhangra

Jazz drummer Sunny Jain’s eight-piece band is a crisp ensemble of American musicians that take inspiration from the joie de vivre of Punjabi folk music. Jain spoke to Khabar about his mystical fascination with the dhol, and about fusing diverse elements to create an eclectic mix of bhangra, Bollywood, sufi, and New Orleans funk.

(Photo: Erin Patrice O’Brien)

Imagine a North Indian wedding procession, complete with the overdressed groom riding a white steed, spirited relatives dancing around, and, of course, the baraat band.

If you need to relive that revelry, stop scrambling for a wedding invite or an India flight, and look up Red Baraat. This eight-piece band from Brooklyn, NY, confounds genres, but its music has all the eclectic creativity of Brooklyn with all the joyous abandon of Punjabi folk.

After having played at iconic settings like the Lincoln Center, the Paralympic Games, and most recently the Indiaspora Inaugural Ball in Washington, D.C., Red Baraat set off on their first U.S. tour. Their wild party stopped over in Atlanta where they enthralled a packed audience at the Rialto Center.

Their loud rambunctious stage presence transports you to the streets of Delhi in the middle of a wedding baraat, which is exactly what inspires their music.

Incidentally, the band itself was born at a wedding. At his wedding in 2005, Sunny Jain, the founder, invited a few of his musician friends to play for his baraat. The band baaja was a hit and Sunny went on to start a five-piece Indian marching band that played at wedding parties. By 2008, more members were added and they started performing as Red Baraat. They released their debut album in 2009, and their second album Shruggy Ji, released in 2012, is dominating the world music charts on iTunes.

Sunny Jain, who was a jazz drummer, conceived the band as an extension of his own dual identity. In 2003, on a tour to India, Sunny bought a dhol and fell in love with the instrument instantly. The mobility of the instrument and its earthy sound appealed to Sunny. Today, Sunny is the lead dhol player for Red Baraat. The band members include Rohin Khemani on percussion, Tomas Fujiwara on the drum set, Mike Bomwell on the soprano saxophone, Sonny Singh on trumpet and vocals, MiWi La Lupa on bass trumpet and vocals, Ernest Stuart on trombone, and John Altieri on sousaphone and rap.

In conversation with Khabar, Sunny Jain talks about how his identity shapes his music.

You have said that something jolted you when you played the dhol five years ago. What was that about?
I’ve been playing drums for 27 years. While I grew up with Indian music I didn’t start playing Indian instruments like the tabla until maybe 17 years ago. I played tabla on and off since then, but I was in Delhi and I was shopping for a new set of tabla, and I picked up a dhol and took it home and started playing it. A student of one of my tabla gurujis was also playing dhol and he showed me how to play it. I just fell in love with the instrument instantly. It’s a very earthy sound. First of all you’re wearing this instrument on your shoulder. It’s hanging down right at your waist. When you play it you feel that pulse and rhythm right at your core. On top of that, I’m moving now, not just sitting on top of that drum set. I can dance. I can jump up and down. And I’m swinging my arms wildly. So what started happening was that the instrument and the sound and the spirit of the instrument that lives within that drum just woke me to a different character that I had not known. I’d never seen this character come out of me. It only happens when I put on that drum. I could be completely exhausted and sleep-deprived, and I start playing the dhol and a completely new energy overtakes me. I don’t know how to describe it.

It is an instrument that comes alive. I don’t think I’ve seen a sad dholak player ever!
Yes. (Laughs) It wouldn’t make sense.

Before the dhol were you familiar with Bhangra?
Oh yes, I grew up with Gurdas Maan and Daler Mehndi and Pankaj Udhas and so many different types of music at home. I’m the youngest of three so when my brother and sister were off at school my mom was always playing Jain bhajans in the house. My dad loved Bollywood music, so he was always playing old Raj Kapoor songs from the ’50s and ’60s. And we also had some Hindustani classical records. There was always Bhangra playing in the Indian parties. I remember air-tabla-ing when I was four years old, to Zakir. I remember just sitting, listening, banging on the table, kind of playing up in the air and knowing at that point that I wanted to play drums. I didn’t necessarily know what sounds I was hearing on the record but I certainly grew up with those sounds. It was just something in my blood.

The dhol actually seems like such a casual instrument, unlike the more serious tabla. Is there any formal training you have to go through for the dhol, too?
Unfortunately there’s a misconception about the dhol—even a lot of tabla players think you can just pick up the dhol and hit it. But I challenge them to do it, to pick up the dhol and play it like I play it or some other dhol player like Ravi Dana or like Pappu Sain from Pakistan. There’s no way a tabla player can play the dhol like they can. It’s just a misperception that it’s a simple archaic instrument that you just pick up and hit. To play the dhol with sensitivity and to make it groove is where the challenge is. But yes, I studied with a few people in India, but I had the language of rhythm within me because I had studied the tabla and drums. I learned a lot from listening to tapes and records and also from watching YouTube videos.

How easy is it to fuse such different elements as Bhangra and jazz? And why do you do it?
The reason I do it is because it is a reflection of who I am. I’ve studied jazz music but I’m certainly not going to imitate the language of the ’50s. That’s not me. I’m not a product of the ’50s. I’m a product of the 1990s and 2000 and also a product of the Indian heritage. So for me putting these elements together is not contrived. It makes one hundred percent perfect sense because it’s really what I hear in my head. When you’re starting from a place like that there’s truth and honesty. There’s nothing else. You can say you don’t like it—everyone is entitled to their feelings and opinions, but you can’t contest why I do that. It was a natural thing for me. There’s nothing more to it.

How about the non-desi members of Red Baraat? How easy is it for them to assimilate such different genres of music?
First and foremost, that’s what makes our sound complete. All the guys in the band have different experiences of music, especially the guys that don’t have a strong background in Indian music. I think that lends itself to a refreshing sound in what we’re doing. If everyone had a background in Indian or jazz music we’d sound really watered down. It would sound boring. The fact that they don’t have the kind of experience we’re coming from, that lends freshness to our sound. They’re amazing musicians and beyond that they’re sensitive and open. Everyone is such an exceptional listener and player that we’re able to make it all work. I attribute it to their musicianship and their talent and ability.


(Photo: Erin Patrice O’Brien)

How would you classify Red Baraat—what genre would you put it in?
I don’t necessarily like to classify it. It sounds funny when you say something like Red Baraat combines Punjabi music with jazz. It doesn’t have to be any genre. We have been calling it Brooklyn Bhangra because it encompasses so much in terms of feel and perception. You get that connotation from Brooklyn—you get that energy, that urgency of a metropolis. Brooklyn is central to creativity where different backgrounds come together. You’re walking in this city and you hear hip-hop playing and a block later you hear a jazz saxophone playing. It’s all these worlds colliding into one—everything makes sense.

Who would you say inspires your music? Do you see any other Indian bands doing similar music?
I was a jazz drummer for several years before Red Baraat so I was coming up in that world of South Asian jazz. Musicians like Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa had released several albums prior to Red Baraat. So I definitely have colleagues on that level of jazz music. There were lots of influences, whether it be Nikhil Banerjee, Zakir Hussain or Raj Kapoor songs. But also growing up with the progressive Canadian rock trio Rush and Primus and Genesis and then falling in love with the sounds of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. So all these things come together and just assert themselves out in terms of my compositional process and my playing. It’s hard to identify exactly what the influences are for Red Baraat but all the guys in the band bring in their sensibilities to it, and that’s what’s been making the sound in our band.

The one thing that struck me most when I was listening to your music is that it’s so offbeat. Did you expect to be so successful, and to be touring all over the country?
When we put the band together I knew it would be something unique. It was part of the reason why I wanted to do it. I wanted to use this boisterous sound. There is some Hindustani classical influence in what we’re doing, especially in some of the new songs that we haven’t released yet, but there’s a lot of Bhangra, Bollywood, bhajans, and various other elements of Indian music. There are so many different kinds of music coming from that subcontinent, whether it be Bengali music, or Rajasthani folk music. But when people think of Indian music they just think of classical music, Bollywood, or Bhangra, that’s it. Certainly those things are fused in there but it’s fused in a manner of “let’s get people up and dancing.” It’s a sound that’s Indian-American, not just Indian. It’s not just a baraat band or a brass band.

In your live performances, is your playlist spontaneous, going by the audience reaction, or do you go in with a set of numbers in mind?
Definitely we have a sketch, an idea of what songs we’re going to play. What typically happens is that the first three songs are usually set. I have a set list order, but I often diverge from it in the middle. It is very much based on how we’re feeling that moment, how the audience is reacting to things, knowing when and what to give to the audience, whether it may be a slower song, a sufi song, a funner song, throwing out certain emotions and being able to read the audience and connect with them. There’s a set repertoire, but often times it’s dictated by the energy and the people in the room.

I loved what you did with “Mehndi Lagake Rakhna.” It’s a cult song so it’s sometimes difficult to reinterpret something that’s so known. So how do you reinterpret cult music?
I don’t just take any song and rearrange it or reinterpret it. I take songs that mean something to me, that have a certain place in my life experience. When you’re starting from a place like that it’s a lot easier to put your heart and thought and emotion into it. That’s what happened with “Mehndi.” It’s a song that meant something to me when it first came out. I rearranged it for the band. And the band took it to another level.

The music of Red Baraat seems so spontaneous—it’s as if you’re all just jamming. Do you work to get that effect or does it just happen? Because I’m sure you do write down your music and lyrics and everything and yet it doesn’t seem rehearsed at all.
That’s a key component of our sound. And what we bring to the stage is improvisation and spontaneity. Certainly the different players have to know their parts, but this is the element of jazz that comes in. The element of improvisation and knowing how to navigate the rhythms and melodies and listening and playing with one another. It’s not just jamming but jamming in an organized fashion. We have the vocabulary, the background, and the ability to know how to interact and play music with one another. That’s something that comes with the experience of playing. Definitely, the key ingredient to our sound is that there are set melodies and songs, but it opens up for soloing and improvisation and everyone just goes for it. No performance is the same, because we’re playing the same song but you’ll never hear the same solo ever.

Do you have non-desi people coming up to you and asking you where Indians play this kind of music and being fascinated by the whole concept of baraat?
Absolutely. Everyone comes to it from a different perspective and is just taken with music, whether it’s desi or non-desi. They find something that appeals to them in this music. But there are certainly people that are not aware of the baraat tradition. Most people hear it and think, oh, this is New Orleans music with Punjabi beats. And they have no idea that there’s an Indian brass band tradition that dates back to the 18th century, to the colonial times. That was my experience coming to this band and bringing that sensibility to it. Certainly there is some education involved, but it’s all good.

You’re like a cultural ambassador for baraats.
Yes. (Laughs).

Deepti Sivakumar, formerly a correspondent with The Times of India, is now an Atlanta-based entrepreneur and freelance who loves the cocktail of journalism, arts, and culture.

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