The word Baraat in several Indian languages means wedding procession. It’s where the dhol (double-sided, barrel-shaped drum) player leads a horns-fueled band to accompany the groom and his wedding party as they dance through the streets on their way to the nuptials at the bride’s house. Red Baraat fuses that joyful cacophony into a weave of bhangra, New Orleans brass band, funk, Latin jazz, Bollywood beats and more. The Brooklyn band’s leader Sunny Jain is an accomplished jazz drummer and a feisty dhol player, guiding this outfit of kindred musical souls that traverse the global streets and arrive at the juncture of Indian percussion and, well, the party. They will perform on Thu, May 8 at the Neighborhood Theatre in Charlotte. (This review originally published in Creative Loafing, Charlotte).
Interview with band leader Sunny Jain
(Originally published in Saathee Magazine, June 2010 edition)
One of the elements of colorful Indian weddings is the baraat (wedding procession). The baraat band, usually consisting of a singer with an orchestra featuring horns and percussion, marches right along with the groom and his party that’s headed toward the bride’s house. Meet Sunny Jain, a percussionist based in New York City. He is a drummer and dhol master and has assembled a band called Red Baraat, playing, what else, baraat (processional) music. Although you can’t peg them as simply a baraat band, as the combo plays brass and bhangra that’s funky, danceable, laden with eclectic world sounds, and is yet unmistakably Indian. The group released their debut recording, Chaal Baby, earlier this year on Jain’s own record label SinJ Records and the album features originals as well as brassy takes on Bollywood songs “Mehndi Laga Ke Rakhna,” and “Aaj Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi Hai.” There’s also a horns-infused version of Daler Mehndi’s “Tunak Tunak Tun.”
Jain’s dhol is the centerpiece pounding traditional Punjabi folk music while the horns evoke a New Orleans brass band. As musical paths around the world converge, more styles and genres like this are bound to converge. Red Baraat, though, is the first and only dhol ‘n’ brass band of its kind in the United States, where the dhol (double-sided, barrel-shaped North Indian drum slung over one shoulder) is the foundation. In Red Baraat Jain has assembled a varied group of musicians, Indian and non-Indian, all bringing their individual flair and sound into the mix.
Sunny Jain began his percussion journey at a young age. He is now an accomplished and an in-demand jazz drummer. His love of percussion is naturally apparent when he is playing dhol in NYC-based Red Baraat and other projects.
Here’s an interview with Sunny Jain.
What got you into percussion?
I started playing drums at a young age doing symphonic percussion at school up in Rochester, NY. The drum teacher I had up there happened to be a jazz bebop drum teacher, so when I turned 13 and got my first drum set that’s what he wanted me to be introduced to. And as a kid you’re a sponge for anything and everything and I really kinda took it all in. It was challenging music to play with. By the time I was 16 or 17 I knew I wanted to do this as a profession. I wanted to go to college and study music. I loved playing drums and I wanted to learn more and study more.
Was there any parental resistance?
There wasn’t too much resistance from my parents. My older brother and sister had broken down some barriers. My parents were quite supportive when I look back on it, as compared to other Indian parents and their attitudes. I went to Rutgers and studied and always had in the back of mind that if this (music) didn’t work out, I can always become a lawyer or go into business or whatever. I cut my teeth in college playing professionally and booking gigs and later recording CDs. You know the more you put into something you love, it’s going to give back to you. I started doing small gigs in college and stepped it up a little ever since every year and that’s how it’s progressed.
So you’re doing music full time?
Yeah, after I got my masters degree at NYU, I got a gig touring with Kyle Eastwood’s band (Clint Eastwood’s son). I was touring around with him for a couple of years on and off in the States and Europe. I later developed some back problems and ran out of insurance with my parents, a friend of mine set me up with a temporary position and it turned into fulltime fif for a year. That was my only real fulltime job, other than that all I’ve ever done is play music and compose music and write instructional books. I play jazz drums and dhol and play some tabla and travel around in different circuits and perform with different folks.
Were you born here in the States?
I was born here in 1975. Both of my parents are Punjabi and they’re originally from Sialkot before the partition and moved to Eastern Punjab after. Several family members migrated down to Rajasthan and now my mom’s side of the family lives in Delhi.
So how did Red Baraat happen?
Red Baraat came out of my wedding four years ago. I wanted to write my own stuff for the music, some kind of imprint upon my own wedding. I’d go to my cousins’ weddings in India with baraat music, the colonial marching band, and the separate dhol player. At my wedding I just didn’t want to have a dholi (dhol player) since I have all these friends who are musicians. I put together a band of about 20 musicians, who are friends of mine anyway and were coming to the wedding, and asked them to bring me in (the procession). And literally that’s where the whole thing (concept for Red Baraat) started. After that the word spread in the tri-state area that there was an Indian marching band around and I started getting phone calls. We did a few weddings and started getting calls from all over the country. I did research on the Internet and found there was no Indian wedding marching band in the States and that’s how this spread so quickly. This went on from 2006 onward and Red Baraat is a bridge toward disparate cultures. Growing up in the United States in a very traditional Indian family and also a Jain family, music for me was also something that connected these two worlds. To me the dhol is the heartbeat of so much Indian music that you hear. I wanted to put together a group that was completely acoustic and I guess primal, raw and organic. I wanted just horns and drums where we can immediately march on the streets but then we can get in a club with a drum set and get in a heavy groove and pretty much rock out. With Red Baraat we do traditional wedding songs but a large portion is original music. It’s a fusion of bhangra, funk, and hip-hop. There’s also Brazilian music, jazz, Afro-beat. I just didn’t want to be a typical Indian baraat band. One reason is because we’re not all Indian in the band but also growing up in America I had all this music swirling around in my head. There was no reason for me to limit Red Baraat. I wanted the sound to be made up by the members of the band. The prime goal is does it sound good and can people dance?
You can’t miss the Indian foundation.
Absolutely. Even though it’s a very democratic band, I’m the leader of the band and my experience is of an Indian-American, growing up with Indian culture. All my music has that element. It’s something I can’t refute. It’s the fabric of my identity.
How was it opening for the ska band Slackers?
Wherever we play it doesn’t necessarily just appeal to Indian audiences. People enjoy this music at a world music show, or fashion show or opening for the ska band the Slackers. Something in there that strikes people, I don’t know if it’s the sound of the dhol or the energy we bring.
The band has performed at Chicago World Music Festival, Madison World Music Festival, Lincoln Center, Droma Gypsy Festival, DJ Rekha’s Basement Bhangra, and India Independence Day Parade. Jain also performed with Junoon in New Delhi. For more details visit www.sunnyjain.com or www.redbaraat.com. (This interview/feature was originally published in Saathee magazine's June 2010 edition)