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Let's do the bhangra bop
It's been called New York's best-kept secret: Red Baraat, an exuberant brass band that combines the verve of bhangra with the energy of New Orleans jazz is the newest and loudest sensation on New York's indie-music circuit.
Led by Sunny Jain, a 37-year-old who plays the dhol, the eight-piece group has succeeded in creating a revolutionary sound and identity that has the audience high on adrenaline.
With lively reworkings of wedding procession favourites like Tunak tunak tun and foot-tapping originals like Chaal baby, Red Baraat began performing in small clubs in Brooklyn and in Manhattan, which led to fans and enthusiastic music bloggers raving about how its infectious sound and attitude may just get us a little closer to world peace! The band is now playing sold-out shows all across the United States and Europe, and is set to release their new album Shruggy Ji in January 2013.
Jain set up Red Baraat in 2008. After having led a modern jazz quartet, he was looking for a change. Instead of the staple sounds of East-West fusion - the sitar and tabla - he decided to take a different route. "I wanted to create a big brass band that would also look back to the kind of music that I remember as a child, " he says. "A band that was acoustic, with horns and drums, to create a big dance party band! Something I could just take to the street and play for the community, get people involved, music that people could enjoy dancing to and could feel it within their hearts. "
His musical journey was part of a search for his identity as an Indian-American born and raised in Rochester, NY. On a childhood trip to India, he attended a wedding with the works - all the noise and music and fireworks, and was mesmerised by the sheer energy and joy of the wedding band and the beat of the dhol.
Back in the USA, he listened to the likes of Smashing Pumpkins, Genesis and Depeche Mode, while at home his family played songs from the films of Raj Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan along with something far removed from the world of rock 'n' roll - bhajans. His family often took him along to community poojas where he heard devotional songs, which his mother also sang at home.
He has talked about the racism that he witnessed as an Indian-American growing up in suburban America, but did not let it define his experience. "There was a lot that happened then that I didn't realise was due to the colour of my skin. It wasn't until I went to college that I realised that those were racist. But I think it didn't impact me because I had friends from all communities and I did not internalise any of that, " he says.
"My music was about trying to understand what it meant to be American and Indian at the same time. My Indian side was compartmentalised with my Indian friends, family and Indian music, and on the other side, I had my jazz. " He recalls, "My jazz teacher told me that I should draw from the music of my culture, to 'write whatever is in your head and in your heart - it doesn't matter if it does not fit within a specific parameter or musical genre'. Up until then, I used to think that there was no connection between jazz and Indian music. It was only after I started composing that I realised that I could pull from all these different sources and traditions of music, because that was my identity. "
While his siblings went to med school, he went on to study jazz performance for his bachelor's degree and obtained an MA in Music Business from New York University. Apart from the influence of jazz legends like Miles Davis and Max Roach, the music of fusion pioneers like Trilok Gurtu and Talvin Singh and Brit-Asian talents like Asian Dub Foundation and Nitin Sawhney also resonated deeply with him.
Brooklyn, New York with its eclectic mix of musicians, artists and writers was the perfect location to set up his revolutionary multicultural band. After he taught himself to play the dhol, Jain roped in a number of established musicians, with Tomas Fujiwara (drum set) Rohin Khemani (percussion) John Altieri (sousaphone and rap) Ernest Stuart (trombone) MiWi La Lupa (bass trumpet and vocals) Sonny Singh (trumpet and vocals) and Mike Bomwell (saxophone). Each brings his own perspective and background to the band. For instance, John Altieri is a classical musician and conductor, while Sonny Singh, a musician/writer and activist who grew up singing in gurdwaras, co-founded a political rock band called Outernational and a ska music band called Turban Jones.
Chaal Baby, the cheerful title track of their 2010 debut album, is a deft play on words and draws on good old balle balle bhangra and jazz improvisations. "Chaal is the rhythm of the dhol, but most people will call it 'Chal Baby', as in C'mon Baby', " says Jain. Shruggy ji, the title track on their forthcoming album, displays the influence of go-go music alongside a slower bhangra tune.
While Indians may recognize some of the more familiar melodies like Tunak tunak tun or Mehendi lagake rakhna, the band's energetic music seems to have an appeal that is truly global. Says Jain, "Everyone hears something different in our music. I've had people in Brazil telling me it sounds like samba music, people in Virginia say it's like go-go music while jazz musicians can hear the improvisations. At the end of the day, it is intended to lift the spirit and bring joy to anyone who listens."
Since their formation in 2008, Red Baraat has played at the Montreal Jazz Festival, the Quebec City Summer Festival, the Chicago World Music Festival, the Lincoln Center, The Kennedy Center, and the New Orleans Jazz Festival. In April, they even performed at the White House. "That was a blast, " bass trumpet player La Lupa told The Guardian. "Bringing this noise to the American Indian treaty room - no treaties were signed!"
Jain now wants to take his music to India. "It's certainly on my list, " he says. "I'd love to take Red Baraat there. I'm very curious to see how people will react to this band. "
(Photo courtesy: Stephen Welsh)
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