Red Baraat: An All-American Immigration Saga

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 04.12.13 in Interviews

Describing New York’s Red Baraat dhol ‘n’ brass band is like those blind guys and the elephant, only in reverse: What you hear depends on what touches you. South Asians will immediately recognize Bollywood hits like “Dum Maro Dum” and “Mast Kalendar,” devotional music like “Samaro Mantra” and “Aarthi, and the joyous party vibe of the baraat, a bridegroom’s wedding procession. Dancers in Virginia and Washington, D.C., will hear a go-go influence right off the bat, especially once sousaphonist John Altieri starts rapping. New Orleaneans will feel right at home once the brass kicks in, jazzbos will feel the swing, and Brazilians think it sounds like samba.

When the loud and proud nonet toured the UK for the first time in early 2013, however, founding dhol drummer Sunny Jain says “they thought it was a punk-rock band,” adding, “I’d never heard that one before.”

Formed in 2009, Red Baraat is the happy multicultural outcome of an all-American immigration saga. Sunny Jain was born in 1975 and raised in Rochester, New York. Originally from Pakistan’s Punjab region, his parents were devout Jains, adherents of the Indian religion noted for its commitment to nonviolence. Sunny was raised a strict vegetarian and prayed at pujas, Jain religious ceremonies, where he learned South Asian bhajan, or devotional songs. Outside the house he played ball with his American friends; inside he played “table tabla” with his uncles and father, an amateur harmonium player and Ravi Shankar fan, jamming out to vintage Bollywood hits and bhajan.

Jain’s two worlds didn’t entwine until he began writing jazz tunes while studying drums and composition at Rutgers. Frustrated by the music’s 32-bar AABA form, he yearned to return to the sounds he heard growing up. “They hold a place in my heart,” he says. “I began studying all the Tin Pan Alley standards when I was 10 years old. But when I started writing, I wanted to explore my standards.” As a bandleader, the drummer released three jazz albums — As Is (re-released as Mango Festival), Avaaz and Taboo — that inventively blend Eastern and Western styles no less distinctively than slightly older desi groundbreakers, and sometime-colleagues, Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Rez Abbasi. Jain, however, was becoming increasingly ambivalent about the jazz scene; he missed the fellow feeling that connects musicians and audience in a communal moment.

Red Baraat was assembled as the wedding band for Jain’s own ceremony. A few years earlier, he’d pick up the double-head dhol drum, a sticks-struck staple of Punjab’s bhangra beats, and fell in love with it. Playing the dhol in drummer Kenny Wolleson’s Himalayas marching band rejuvenated Jain’s love of performance, and he realized that no one to date had combined Indian music, jazz, and electronic music with dhol. “I wanted to do something that reminded me of being a five-year-old in India watching my uncle getting married, when this brass band ensued, a dhol player showed up, and this cacophonous sound started happpening.”

Jain conceived Red Baraat as “another egg in the basket,” just one project among many. But it took on a life of its own. “I only wanted drums and horns, no electrified instruments,” though Altieri occasionally triggers electronic effects. “I wanted to take to the streets with a big boisterous sound.” Red Baraat joined a robust local brass-band cohort that included Slavic Soul Party!, Brooklyn Qawwali Party and Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All Stars. “I wanted a group where I could just play dhol and not drum set. But it’s taken over my life to the point where I hardly ever play drum set nowadays. I knew it was going to be unique, but I didn’t think it would take off like it did.”

Red Baraat’s new Shruggy Ji takes the energy of 2010′s Chaal Baby and 2011′s live Bootleg Bhangra and focuses it in a slightly new direction. As Jain explains, after the India Partition of 1947, “the eastern side gravitated to a rhythm called chaal, which you can hear all over Shruggy Ji. But the western side, and I’m simplifying here, went more to the faster-paced dhamaal, which you hear in ‘Dama Dam Must Qatandar,’ a three-centuries-old Sufi song. The Sufi dhol approach is much more intense.” Jain has been studying that approach on YouTube, picking up licks from the astounding “godfather” of Sufi dhol drumming, Pappu Saeen. “He’ll put the drum strap around his head and start swinging around, playing the most intense stuff and twirling for minutes. It’s ridiculous. I can do it for about 20 seconds before I fall down.”