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Red Baraat Makes NYC Music With Punjabi Beat

  • Carolyn Weaver

New York’s multicultural population is a fertile medium for new fusions in art and music. Red Baraat, an eight-member horns and percussion band from Brooklyn, blends northwestern Indian and Pakistani bhangra music with jazz, funk, hip-hop, and other genres. The result is a raucous, freewheeling sound that people can’t help dancing to, an “explosively happy meld of bangtastic funk, Bollywood drama and marching band swagger,” writes music critic Thom Jurek.

Bandleader Sunny Jain, a first-generation Indian American who grew up in Rochester, New York, founded Red Baraat in 2008, when he was looking for a traditional Indian bhangra band to play at his own wedding. A jazz drummer and singer, he fell in love with the dhol, the booming double-sided drum used in bhangra and in Bollywood musicals, on a trip to India in 1997.

“It was a different energy for me, you know, it’s slung on the shoulder, I’m not sitting stationary on the drum set, but I’m able to move around. And it’s enormously loud,” he said in an interview at the Clearwater Festival on the Hudson River north of New York, where Red Baraat played earlier this summer.

Brooklyn Bhangra

Named after a joyous wedding procession in India, Red Baraat has risen rapidly, going from unpaid gigs in a Brooklyn bar to major music festivals and a performance last year at the White House.

Critics say the music amounts almost to a new genre - a horns n’ drums bhangra and jazz influenced by go-go, Latin music and even a bit of klezmer. “We call it ‘Brooklyn bhangra,’ because we’re all coming from disparate backgrounds,” Jain said.

“I didn’t want just typical jazz players; I wanted people from different backgrounds,” he said. “Sonny Singh is a trumpet player who grew up in, you know, with Sikh gurdwaras, going to temple and praying, and also grew up with ska music and reggae music. MiWi La Lupa is a bass trumpet player; he grew up with like R&B, he grew up with jazz. Ernest Stuart grew up in the black church in Philadelphia. Everybody’s coming from different arenas.”

While Jain on the dhol dominates, Tomas Fujiwara and Rohin Khemani add to the polyrhythms on drumset and percussion. John Altieri plays the sousaphone and sings, as do La Lupa and Mike Bomwell, who plays soprano saxophonist.

Cultural meld

Jain grew up in Rochester, New York, the son of a scientist. He listened equally to American rock and roll and jazz, and to Indian music, including classical and folk music and Bollywood hits. His two cultures rarely met, however.

“It was always a struggle for me growing up. I had the Indian side, very, very Jain, religious, Punjabi. And playing jazz drums, and outside on the weekends, playing baseball, basketball with my buddies. But the two worlds for me were never intertwining,” he said. “It wasn’t maybe until I went to college and started composing, that was my way of reconciling what felt like these two disparate cultures.”

The band’s second full-length album, “Shruggy Ji,” released in January, hit first place on world music charts. Red Baraat has also played to enthusiastic crowds at the Montreal Jazz Fest, at New York’s Lincoln Center, and at the 2012 TED conference, where Jain says dancers in the crowd included former vice president Al Gore.

Some video by Samantha Phillips