Red Baraat: A Bhangra-Powered Party Starter
Red Baraat is wild — and loud. It's also a genre unto itself. The Brooklyn ensemble self-identifies as "dhol 'n' brass," a hybrid of Indian bhangra and New Orleans big-band music.
The group has played everywhere from the White House to the Bonnaroo festival, and its marathon live shows have become the kind of sweaty sensation that packs rock clubs. Limited to horns and percussion, Red Baraat is led by Sunny Jain on the dhol, a barrel-shaped Punjabi drum that's played on both sides. Jain says he's never found himself wishing for a guitar solo to fill space.
"For whatever reason, we're crazy loud, and our energy is like that of a rock band," he says. "So it's not like you're ever really missing anything."
Red Baraat's latest album, Shruggy Ji, came out this week. Jain discusses it here with NPR's Rachel Martin.
On becoming a bandleader
"It was definitely different and a challenge for me in terms of, 'OK, now I'm up front. I have to actually say something and do something up here besides just bang on the drum.' The idea of the band is that the spotlight shifts. It's not the typical, 'Here's a singer and here's a band surrounding the singer.' I don't even consider myself a singer, to be honest. Everyone is really coming into the spotlight."
On the energy of Red Baraat's live shows
"We've got some songs in Hindi, we've got some in Punjabi, and then there's various kind of Punjabi yell-outs and enthusiastic cheer-ons that you hear. I'm oftentimes just yelling and grunting throughout our performance, yelling things to the other guys like, 'Come in with the backgrounds!' ... [Given] the physicality of playing the dhol, you can't help but just have this animal instinct come out."
On the go-go-inspired title track
"Go-go music, it was a groove that just made so much sense, that just really linked up with bhangra music and jazz music. I mean, it's got that swing and that buoyancy. So a lot of the rhythms that we're playing — essentially the drum-set pattern — they're all borrowing from that language."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Red Baraat is wild.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: OK. Are you still sitting down? 'Cause I kind of doubt it. Red Baraat identifies itself as a Brooklyn-based dhol-and-brass band, which means it somehow blends Indian bhangra with New Orleans horns. Think Bollywood meets Treme. The nine-member group has played everywhere from The White House to Bonnaroo and their marathon live shows have become a sweaty sensation. Their new CD, out this month, is called "Shruggy Ji." And we're joined now from our New York studios by Red Baraat's founder and leader Sunny Jain. Sunny, welcome to the program.
SUNNY JAIN: Thanks for having me, Rachel.
MARTIN: OK. So, how'd you come up with this idea - bhangra, New Orleans brass - not necessarily something that naturally goes together.
JAIN: Yeah. I guess, you know, it's been a slow journey that's eventually developed to Red Baraat. You know, I was born and raised here in the States but raised with very traditional Indian values. So, my musical expression has always been kind of trying to, you know, mix these two cultures that at one point felt very diverse. So, about four years ago, the idea was to put together a really big, boisterous brass band. Kind of actually looking back, when I was five years old, I remember going to India and my uncle was getting married. And over there in North India, there's a procession called the baraat, which it includes, like, marching bands and dhol drummers and horses. And it's a big fanfare. You know, people are dancing and singing through the streets. And I remember at five years old just being mesmerized by what was going on. You know, a brass band showed up and started playing and then five minutes later two dhol players showed up and started banging away, not even with the band.
MARTIN: The dhol is a type of Indian drum, right?
JAIN: Yeah. That's the drum I play. That's the Punjabi instrument, dhol. Kind of fast forwarding this whole progression of growing up with Western, you know, classic rock, like Zeppelin, Rush or Genesis and then the Indian influence and then jazz. And it's kind of finally come out in Red Baraat.
MARTIN: I love the Genesis reference. Again, Phil Collins not necessarily something I associate with bhangra.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: You talked about bhangra as being an Indian marching music, but that directly references the marching music that we know happens in New Orleans. Right? That's also part of that tradition.
JAIN: It is. I mean, it's like a cousin-brother. I mean, honestly, when I started the group, you know, I was familiar with New Orleans music just as a jazz player, but it's not something I delve into necessarily. My heart really laid into bebop and, like, you know, '60s Miles Group, Wayne Shorter and things like that. And then, of course, improvisation being a key element from my jazz upbringing and just wanting that expression of spontaneity on stage with everyone in the band and just with the audience as well. And then, you know, funk, Latin music, I mean, it all kind of comes in because we're just open-ended and we just assume anything that works for us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: So, you reference this before - you're of Indian descent. You grew up in upstate New York, though. What was that like?
JAIN: Yeah, I was born and raised in Rochester, New York.
MARTIN: A lot of music in your upbringing?
JAIN: You know, there was at home. I grew up with a religious background called Jainism. And so my mom at home played a lot of bhajans, which are devotional songs. And my dad was playing, like, old Bollywood sides from the '50s and '60s, typically Raj Kapoor movies on his reel-to-reel player.
MARTIN: I want to talk about the title cut. It's called "Shruggy Ji." And I read that it was in some way inspired by go-go music, which is a D.C. kind of music tradition. Is that right?
JAIN: Yeah, it is. Go-go music, it was a groove that just made so much sense, that just really linked up with bhangra music and jazz music. I mean, it's got that swing and that buoyancy. So, a lot of the rhythms that we're playing, I mean, essentially the drum-set pattern, they're all borrowing from that language. And then the whole Minyul thing is instead of having, like, timbale in there, throwing in the dhol for a little child feeling.
MARTIN: OK. Well, let's take a little listen to this 'Shruggy."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHRUGGY JI")
RED BARAAT: Yeah, yeah. Ready Sunny? Come on. (Singing) (unintelligible) move your body and shake (unintelligible). Just feel the rhythm of the (unintelligible) under your skin. (Unintelligible)...
MARTIN: I mean, I almost dare someone to hear that and not move. It's kind of impossible to not at least tap your foot. I mean, I don't want to imply that it's not a full sound. It's a very full sound. But it is just percussion and horns. Do you ever kind of sit back and say, ah, if we only had a really great guitar solo right here?
JAIN: You know, I've really been loving just the acoustic sound of the band. I mean, the wonderful thing is while it is just, you know, drums and horns, like you're saying, it's like whatever reason we're crazy loud and, like, our energy is, like, that of a rock band. So, it never feels like you're missing anything.
MARTIN: And we heard from spoken word stuff in that last track, "Shruggy Ji." That was in English, but you also sing in Indian Punjabi?
JAIN: Yeah. We've got some songs in Hindi, we've got some in Punjabi, and then there's various kind of Punjabi yell-outs, an enthusiastic kind of cheer-ons that you hear.
MARTIN: I like it. What's an example of a Punjabi yell-out?
JAIN: (makes sound)
MARTIN: Awesome. What happens when that call is evoked? Is that used for a specific purpose or just to kind of, you know, say, hey, I'm here?
JAIN: I'm oftentimes just yelling and grunting throughout our performance, because I'm yelling things to the other guys like come in with the backgrounds and just kind of turning around here and there. And just the physicality of playing the dhol, you can't help but just have this animal kind of instinct come out.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: In another chapter of your musical career, you worked as a jazz drummer, you're kind of behind the scenes. In Red Baraat, obviously, you have a much different role. You're front and center. You're the band's leader and singer. I wonder was that a tough transition to make or was that pretty natural for you?
JAIN: It was definitely different and a challenge for me in terms of, OK, now I'm up front. I have to actually say something and do something up here besides just bang on the drum. But everyone is really kind of coming into the spotlight.
MARTIN: I'd love to go out with another track from the album. This one's called "Tenu Leke." And this is yet another song that, I mean, you can't hear it and not move your body. Tell me about this particular track.
JAIN: Yeah. This song kind of looks back again at that baraat kind of idea, that procession that happens during wedding time. This song is actually from a Bollywood movie called "Salaam-e-Ishq." And "Tenu Leke" was a wedding song that they played in the movie. Tenu leke means actually taking you but the full lyrics, (Foreign language spoken), is I will not leave from here until I take you. It's kind of like this groom coming to take his bride away.
MARTIN: It's very Bollywood.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TENU LEKE")
MARTIN: I could see it now. All the movie characters bust in song and choreographed dance. Bollywood in all the right ways. Sunny, thanks so much for talking with us. It's been a pleasure.
JAIN: Oh, thank you, Rachel.
MARTIN: Sunny Jain of the band Red Baraat. He spoke with us from our studios in New York. The new CD is called "Shruggy Ji."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TENU LEKE")
MARTIN: Are you moving yet? You can hear more tracks from "Shruggy Ji" at nprmusic.org. Before we leave you this week, we'd like to say farewell to a couple of colleagues. Editor Sara Gilbert and producer Hanzi Lo Wang, they are each moving on to new adventures. Sara and Hanzi, you made the show better every single week. Good luck. We're going to miss you. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.