Red Baraat has built its reputation on exuberant, party-ready music inspired by everything from hip-hop to jazz, from bhangra to funk, but founder Sunny Jain almost talked his way out of music.
[Updated] Red Baraat sometimes gets narrowly defined as making "world" or "ethnic" music. Though bandleader Sunny Jain composes music influenced by bhangra music, he's equally influenced by funk, jazz, and hip-hop. The songs on the band's latest album, Gaadi of Truth, sound like a Saturday night in Brooklyn or the throes of Carnival season. Red Baraat brings its jubilant, communal sound to Tipitina's Feb. 12 at 11 p.m., conveniently after Krewe of Muses rolls through Uptown New Orleans.
Jain insists that the band's perceived multicultural identity is a product born of the contemporary world.
"I wasn't trying to be ethnically diverse," Jain says. "I was just trying to pull together [band members with] diverse musical sensibilities. It's interesting that people saw it that way. It's a problem you face as an Indian-American. You can step into both worlds, you can walk wherever you want, but other people might pigeonhole you. It's a blessing and a curse, the way people perceive you. It's cool, but it's also disheartening."
He doesn't purport to represent Indian music, nor does he feel that he represents American music. That designation feels too broad for him. "I see it as an urban band," Jain says.
Red Baraat certainly has the qualities of the urban landscape with a plurality of voices permeating the band's music. Their songs are a Red Bull-dose of jubilant energy and dance-ready rhythms that demand to be heard in the company of others. They've been described by NPR as the "best party band in years."
"Gaadi" means "car" in Hindi, and it's an apt metaphor. The album is a vehicle for social truth about accepting religious, ethnic, social, and cultural pluralism. On Gaadi of Truth's title song, for example, Red Baraat parodies a security officer's racial profiling. A disembodied voice asks, "Will you please come with me? You've been randomly selected for additional screening because you look ethnic! What are you anyways? I mean, where are your parents from?" The sentiment here is ferocious and intelligently tongue-in-cheek. The song doesn't explicitly point fingers at anyone. Instead, it holds up a magnifying glass to cultural assumptions, no matter which angle they come from.
"[Our music is] questioning this stuff, our ideology," Jain says. "We're so ready to update our apps on our iPhones but we come 'pre-installed' with these ideas of religion that are thousands of years old that hardly get updated."
Red Baraat's lyrics could easily cross into ferociously bitter territory, but instead they twist into a raucous brass section, triumphant horns, and a party-ready rhythm. Jain isn't here to complain; he's here to keep moving, and he has been moving around the music world for a while. He grew up in Rochester, NY and started playing music at 10 years old. His parents had a rule: their children needed to play one instrument and one sport. Jain started with the violin because his brother played it, but he hated the instrument. He came down with fake illnesses, anything to avoid his violin lessons. His parent finally let him start taking drum lessons under renowned jazz drummer Rich Thompson. Thompson introduced Jain to jazz drumming, but Jain didn't immediately love it.
"I remember listening to Kind of Blue and not getting it [until] a couple years later," Jain says. "But I was down to learn, an open canvas to teach. I liked jazz drumming because it was so complex."
Jain went on to Rutgers University, where he studied study jazz under Kenny Barron. Even though Jain played freelance gigs throughout college and wanted to be a professional jazz musician, he wasn't sure it was really in the cards for him. He almost walked away from music a few times but each time, incredible coincidences pulled him back.
"When I was 19, I decided I was done," Jain says. "I was going to the administration at Rutgers and was going to tell them that I wanted to drop out of the music program. I was walking towards the building when [jazz guitarist] Ted Dunbar pulled up and asked what I was doing in six months. I was like, 'Probably nothing, I don't know what I'm doing six months in the future!' He was going on tour and needed a jazz drummer, and offered me $400." Jain accepted the gig and turned around.
At 26, he applied to and was accepted at Fordham Law School but again, fate seemed to intervene. Jain vacillated for months about whether to follow his music career or become a lawyer, and it wasn't until the day after the cut off to accept his offer of admission that Jain decided to attend law school. By then, it was too late. Jain was going to be a jazz drummer.
After a career working with everyone from Norah Jones to Q-Tip, from Peter Gabriel to Martha Wainwright, Jain wanted to make more personal music, music that included the sounds he grew up with. He started composing for the dhol drum, a double-headed drum that's often found in popular Punjabi bhangra music. Inspired by the tradition of brass bands that play at northern Indian weddings (baraat means "wedding procession" in Hindi), he started Red Baraat with musicians who have worked with everybody from David Byrne to Broadway shows, and didn't want it to be labeled as a jazz project.
Jain writes songs for Red Baraat that rebel against the notion of labels, and that comes across most strongly on Gaadi of Truth. It's party music that looks beyond the lights into contemporary culture and cultural assumptions, and it demands that you dance with whoever happens to be next to you.
Updated 1:01 p.m.
The Red Baraat show is Feb. 12, not Feb. 13 as the story first reported. The text has been changed to correct this.