Playing with dhol
From bhangra to jazz, Brooklyn’s Red Baraat brings many styles to the dance floor
Too often when a band plays music that’s not clearly rock or pop, with instruments we aren’t accustomed to, it risks being placed under the vague banner of “world music.” That blanket label, despite its multicultural intent, often glosses over many unique, rich musical traditions.
Take Brooklyn’s Red Baraat, an eight-piece that applies a mix of brass instruments and percussion to fun, dance-friendly music with minimal vocals using a hip-hop delivery in different languages. With the non-English tongues and the fact that one of those percussion pieces is an Indian dhol, it might be tempting to call the band “world” (which it very often is), but that oversimplifies a varied sound that runs from the Western-influenced Punjabi “folk-hop” style of bhangra to American-born jazz.
All of it starts with bandleader, singer and dhol-player Sunny Jain, an upstate New York native whose parents emigrated from India in the 1970s. Jain was brought up on Punjabi music and was simultaneously immersed in a culture of classic-rock radio hits. And amid these influences, he found his own outlet: jazz.
“When I went to study drums with my private teacher, he was a bebop drummer, and so instead of showing me John Bonham licks, he showed me Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey,” Jain said in a recent telephone interview. “He hit upon the pivotal jazz drummers and that’s really where my love formed.”
Jain continued to study jazz and began playing around New York City. Though he was immersed in jazz projects, he began to craft an idea to create an Indian brass band, a rare find in the U.S. but common back in India.
“The Red Baraat outfit came about from years of spending time in India during the summers as a child, trips to my family’s homeland in New Delhi, and seeing these Indian marching bands. They’re all over the streets, everyone’s scrambling to get to a gig somewhere,” he said.
Jain began searching out friends in New York to start a band with, and in 2005, Red Baraat began to take shape, building its chops during a two-year monthly residence at a small club in Brooklyn. From the start, it wasn’t just the sound audiences reacted to, but also the band members themselves, who comprise a wide array of ethnicities.
“What started happening from the beginning was people started noticing how we looked before we’d even play a note, and that started striking me as bizarre,” Jain said. “It was like, ‘Why is this so fascinating for people? I live in New York City; this is normal.’ I started kind of realizing, ‘Wow, this is actually very powerful.’ We’re not going up there to necessarily deliver a political message other than: ‘We’re here to celebrate people and humanity; let’s celebrate together.’”
In 2012, the band’s second album, Shruggy Ji, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard world music charts, which led to big festival gigs, world tours, a spot on Austin City Limits and an invitation to play at the White House. Even with all that under their belts, the members of Red Baraat still love playing club shows, like the stop at Chico’s Lost On Main tonight (Aug. 25) as part of a tour supporting the band’s latest release, the five-song EP Livewire.
“There’s something that’s just beautiful and cathartic, verses a large outdoor festival where you’re up on stage away from people,” Jain said.
Red Baraat is still going to get lumped into world music, but its actual effect is as varied as the makeup of its eclectic audience.
“The goal is to bring different backgrounds together,” Jain said. “It allows people just to latch on to what their experience is with music, and to hear something familiar, but hear it with a twist that’s not familiar. If we go to London, people hear the punk influence in our music. If we go to Southeast Asia, people hear the bhangra and the Bollywood. And if we play for a jazz audience, people here the jazz influence. There’s something for everybody to grab onto.”