Red Baraat: Bhangra, Brass and Bringing It

Bumping beats to rearrange heart beats, Red Baraat is “Hoi, hoi-ing” into the hearts of people across the nation. Established in 2008, this nine member New York City based “dhol ‘n’ brass band” has quickly risen to the top in the ‘world music’ circuit (and wedding circuit) of the NYC area. Red Baraat is now taking it outta The City with their first new album, Chaal Baby, set to drop January 2010 and a Midwest tour scheduled in Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago for Sept 17th – 20th. Never to fear, New Yorkers, Red Baraat isn’t leaving without a special show for you on Sept 11th at 92YTribeca w/ Nation Beat.

Haven’t heard the sounds of Red Baraat yet? Well you can check out their YouTube videos and, exclusively for Sepia Mutiny readers, you can download their track Balle Balle for FREE. Right here. If you enjoy the track, you can go to www.redbaraat.com and download a ringtone of Chaal Baby as well. That’s right, I pull strings for you. Because I love you.

<a href="http://redbaraat.bandcamp.com/track/punjabi-wedding-song-balle-balle">Punjabi Wedding Song (Balle Balle) by Red Baraat</a>

Enjoy the track as you listen to my interview with drummer Sunny Jain and trumpeter Sonny Singh as they talk about music, fusion, inspiration and more.

1. How would you describe Red Baraat’s music?

Sunny: Well, the sound of the band is based on acoustic instruments bringing a powerful primal sound: dhol, percussion, sousaphone and several horns. While the foundation is North Indian Bhangra, there is a multitude of musical elements clashing together, such as funk, hip-hop, go-go, rock, jazz, Latin. Also, there’s a good deal of vocal interaction with the audience, from Punjabi singing, to English rapping, to group call-and-responses.

RedBaraat3 for Web.jpg2. Traditionally, baraat bands are found in North India leading wedding processions to festivities. How do you think ‘fusion’ has played a role in ‘Americanizing’ your sound?

Sunny: While Red Baraat aims to bring the festive vibe found in North Indian wedding processions, our sound is naturally an American and/or fusion sound, since the majority of the band grew up here. There are a variety of ethnic, cultural and musical backgrounds that make up Red Baraat and it is only fitting to let these assortments of flavors enter into our group sound. It is because of each individual player in the band that we sound like we do.

Sonny: Music is always about fusion in one way or another, and I don’t think there’s such thing as “pure” music, or “pure” culture for that matter. I’d say we’re intentional about our mash up of different musical traditions and styles for sure.

3.Do you guys perform at weddings?

Sunny: The band actually had its birth at my wedding 4 years ago when 30 0f my musician friends brought me in playing typical baraat music and music I had also written for the occasion. Shortly after that, I started getting calls in the NYC-vicinity to perform at baraats in town. It’s been 3 full seasons now that we’ve been playing weddings and this year alone we’ve performed at nearly 40 of them.

Sonny: A typical Red Baraat baraat gig starts with waking up at 7am or earlier on a Saturday morning, meeting Sunny at a random corner in Brooklyn, getting some bagels/tea/coffee, and then driving to the burbs of jersey or long island to rock for the aunties and uncles. The wedding gigs are kind of intense, as my head often feels like it’s going to explode by the end from playing as loud as I can nonstop. Once the groom gets off the horse, we go back to Brooklyn.

4. What is the story behind how the band first started?

Sunny: The band now known as Red Baraat has been performing publicly for less than a year. While a smaller version of the group has been doing weddings for 3 years now, I didn’t decide to make this a public band until summer of 2008.

Sonny: It’s been awesome working with Red Baraat since the early, pre-public days. Sunny and I met 4-5 years ago through a great Hindustani classical vocalist Samita Sinha who we were collaborating with. Sunny called me to do baraat gigs back when I was playing full-time with another band. But it’s been really exciting that it’s turned into a full-on band in this last year and is my main musical outlet now.

5. You have a talented array of band members…Sunny, how did you find them?

Sunny:I knew all the members of Red Baraat from various playing situations. I was specifically looking to mix it up with various musical backgrounds so that we could have versatility in composition and performance. Each member has such a unique voice they bring to the group…Rohin Khemani (tavil, doumbek, percussion), Tomas Fujiwara (drumset), John Altieri (sousaphone, rap), Arun Luthra (soprano sax, solkattu), Sonny Singh (trumpet, vocals), Dave Smith (trombone), Mike Bomwell (baritone sax), Mike Williams (bass trumpet) and myself (dhol, drumset, percussion, MC).

6. Sunny, you made your professional debut as a dhol player in the Broadway musical Bombay Dreams and you have a long list of credits as a jazz drummer. How did you get your start in music?

Sunny: I remember at age 3 or 4 air-drumming (or air-tabla’ing) to Jain Bhajans, Bollywood, and Top 40 music. I started drum lessons at age 10 and have always been interested in checking out and playing all types of music. I got turned onto jazz by my drum teacher at age 13 and was drawn to the rhythms and depth of the music. I knew at age 17 I wanted to make my living as a musician and since then I’ve been very fortunate to be able to play with some great names in jazz, and then turn around and perform with the sufi-rock group Junoon, and then play on Broadway. I think it’s my penchant for change that propels me to play drumset, dhol, percussion and in various styles: jazz, rock, Indian music, Afro-beat, singer-songwriter, drum ‘n’ bass, etc. I like to mix it up.

Chaal Baby Cover for Web.jpg7. Sonny, I feel like you got your start in music from more the ska and punk side – your first band Turban Jones had a 90s ska/punk sound. How do you think your involvement with music has evolved over the years?

Sonny: When I really think about it, I got my start in music from playing kirtan (Sikh devotional music) in gurdwaras and at Sikh camp when I was really young – playing harmonium and singing and playing tabla. I think I was learning kirtan even before I first touched a trumpet in the 5th grade. But I stopped playing kirtan when I got older and found another calling in the ska scene in Arizona in the 90s. I really came up in the ska and reggae scene…something about the vibe of ska really spoke to me and to date it’s my favorite music to dance to.

When I moved to NYC in 2003 I think I slowly, very slowly, started getting back in touch with playing south asian music. I brought some of that to Outernational, melodically and instrumentally, learned the dhol, and now it’s all coming together in Red Baraat in a new way. This band is much more musically desi than any other band I’ve played in but in this way that people who don’t know anything about Punjabi music or bollywood love too. But for the record, my parents LOVE Red Baraat.

8. Sonny, recently you jumped on stage with The Kominas at a recent fundraiser show in Harlem. What was that experience like?

Sonny: It was funny because Basim (from The Kominas) called me up and told me to come and bring my trumpet. We talked about it briefly and agreed that I’d come sit in for one song at the end of the set. Then as soon as they started playing, Basim makes trumpet gestures at me and I went up there and ended up playing with them for the entire set. We blew out the speakers. Enough said.

9. It was a unique collaboration, what do you have to say about the importance of inter-South Asian/inter-faith collaboration through music?

These tensions that exist between our communities in South Asia and in the diaspora are very real, but I think our generation really needs to make some serious breakthroughs. As a turban-wearing Sikh, I have a very conspicuous spiritual/religious identity, so in that sense, I hope it does send a clear message of solidarity and unity when people see me playing with the Kominas.

I also hope it makes people think about their notions and assumptions about Islam and Sikhi and the walls that are often falsely constructed around these faiths and their followers… Furthermore, Sikh-Muslim solidarity and collaboration in particular is so important in the post-9/11 environment of global Islamaphobia and Arab-hating. The demonizing of Muslims is a big part of why Sikhs face the kind of discrimination and bigotry we do in this country… Artistic collaboration perhaps is one way to move more in this direction.

RedBaraat1 for Web.jpg10. Sonny, you also work at the Sikh Coalition and your past music has a strong political undertone – what are your thoughts on music as a tool for politics?

Sonny: Yeah, I’m a community organizer at the Sikh Coalition in New York City, working to build a movement of Sikhs fighting for equality and social justice. It’s cool to see the overlap that sometimes exists between my day job as an organizer and my musician life in Red Baraat. … Red Baraat is not an explicitly “political band,” but I think nevertheless has an important role in our collective struggles for liberation and social justice. Celebratory music that brings people joy in a world filled with oppressive violence is so important in keeping us hopeful that change is not only possible, but inevitable…if we keep organizing and dreaming and struggling.

11. Both of you guys dabble in a range of genres of music but with Red Baraat it sounds like you are pushing the boundaries of how ‘musical genres’ are defined. What are your thoughts on inter-genre musical collaboration, if you can call it that?

Sunny: It’s like what Duke Ellington once said: “There’s only 2 types of music: good music and bad music.” We’re just trying to play some good music and bring an energy that audiences can latch onto. It’s been great sharing the stage with the various groups we have and I hope to continue doing that with some indie-rock bands as well. I think the whole “inter-genre” musical billing exposes the audience to new music and exposes a band to a new audience. I think that’s great!

Sonny: You think about any innovative and powerful music that has been created throughout human history and it’s always been the result of blending and mixing and pushing boundaries.

Red Baraat has a huge string of shows coming up in the Midwest for World Music Festivals, I believe the first ever for your group? How do you think Red Baraat will be received outside of NYC?

Sunny: This is indeed our first tour and we are psyched. We’re just going to do what we do and bring the energy and excitement we unleash in our live shows and hopefully people will take to it. We’re definitely looking forward to our billing with Cheb I Sabbah in Chicago.

Sonny: I’m looking forward to eating some frozen custard in Wisconsin.

12. Though I’ve never seen you perform, I get the feeling from the youtube videos that is a completely different experience to watch your show live than on CD. What have been your favorite live performances?

Sunny: Each performance is different and special depending upon the venue, the audience, our setup and whatever random conducting I may do… For instance, playing outdoors at Lincoln Center as a marching band and adding some dramatic movements was fun for us. Then 6 days later, we took the stage at DJ Rekha’s Basement Bhangra and played a tight, crazy high energy 30-minute set. When we play at our monthly spot in Brooklyn, Barbes, we stretch a little more and I have a little more fun with impromptu conducting.

13. What do you think it is about your songs that draw people together?

Sunny: I think it may be the various musical styles that pop out in the music that appeal to people. I think there’s something about acoustic instruments playing with such power and energy that strikes people at the core. Not to mention, the sound of the dhol is so unique and people can’t help but like it.

Sonny: I think people feel the energy. There’s something particularly celebratory about our vibe that I think people connect with. I agree about the dhol too. My friend Sujot once told me, “Like the djembe, the dhol is the heartbeat of a people.” I think people feel it, not just hear it.

14. Who are some of your favorite artists right now that you think people should keep an eye on? Your favorite song and/or CD of the moment?

Sunny: I jump around a lot from The Beatles, to Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens, Nikhil Bannerjee, Nitin Sawhney, Deerhunter and Squarpusher. I have been also revisiting some of the old classic Raj Kapoor songs. My dad used to listen to that often and I just love the melodies of older Bollywood movies…50’s, 60’s.

Sonny: Lately, I can’t stop listening to this 67-song Sufi collection I got in Punjab earlier this year. I’m pretty hooked on qawwalis… Nusrat of course, Wadali Brothers, Abida Parveen, etc. Other favorites include Ojos de Brujo, Ozomatli, Asian Dub Foundation, The Clash, Manu Chao, The Specials, 60s ska, RATM…

15. Final question, you have a cover of the infamous Tunak Tunak Tun – will you be making a tunak tunak tun music video resembling the original?

Sunny: Ha, ha…no plans yet, but who knows where things will go. Perhaps an animated version of the band playing it! I’m actually looking for a video animator if there’s anyone interested?

Sonny: I’m not dressing like Daler Mehndi.

Listen into WNYC 93.9 (NYC) w/ John Schaefer at 2pm EST Sept 10th to an interview w/ Red Baraat and check out Vogue’s Fashion Night Out that evening for a live performance. For a list of their upcoming NYC and Midwest tour dates, please check out Red Baraat’s tour site. To learn more about the band, listen to their music, join their mailing list, and keep posted on the debut of their CD, please visit www.redbaraat.com.

And don’t forget to download their song and ringtone, for FREE, exclusively for Sepia Mutiny readers!

**Credit: Photos by Amy Touchette. Chaal Baby album cover designed by Namita Kapoor.

This entry was posted in Music by Taz. Bookmark the permalink.

About Taz

Taz is an activist, organizer and writer based in California. She is the founder of South Asian American Voting Youth (SAAVY), curates MutinousMindState.tumblr.com and blogs at TazzyStar.blogspot.com. Follow her at twitter.com/tazzystar

25 thoughts on “Red Baraat: Bhangra, Brass and Bringing It

  1. Sonny: I’m not dressing like Daler Mehndi.

    Awww, man! That would totally rock. I’ll bet you even have the costume already …

  2. well good how they have such a random formation in the video. can’t wait to hear more. interesting to see them in different places.

  3. “That’s right, I pull strings for you. Because I love you.” Or because you love them and what better exposure than SM? Can’t hate though, they’re really good. :)

  4. This is some great music – great to dance too. Love the large band ensemble – like an Indian Arcade Fire.

    But please let’s not speak of Bride and Prejudice again….please.

  5. “But please let’s not speak of Bride and Prejudice again….please.”

    Lol duly noted, duly noted.

  6. Saw them recently at Bhangra Basement and they rocked. Their music puts me in such a happy place. I highly recommend you see them alive if you get the chance!

  7. Sorry, I meant live. Clearly we are part of the living. Unless this is an episode of Ghostwriter.

  8. Yeah, fantastic stuff! Almost like a Fela Kuti, but much more exciting and with the Indian twist, as opposed to the Afro-beat….Indo-Beat?

    · Sonadelite on September 11, 2009 02:14 PM “I highly recommend you see them alive if you get the chance!”

    I will try and see them alive soon ;)

  9. Hells yeah! What took bhangra-ska so long to find my ears and feet?

    (I pretty much dance just two dances–skanking and pretending to bhangra whilst actually just bhangraskanking. And now my shoulders are twitching for no damn reason…)

  10. Dang, I missed this show! I’m headed to chicago this weekend, 9/25– does anyone know of good bhangra or south asian fusion performances that will be happening around the city this weekend?

  11. mmmmmmm as long as he doesn’t dress like a 3ho, or kiss any gori’s ass……he looks and sounds soooo good to me! i love jazz, n i love bhangra, and he’s looking like a billa – he puts a whole new meaning to scat cat……go man go! awesome……..just awesome …….n soooooo cute!

  12. must sunny be so cute? maybe thats why he wont dress like daler…..as cute as daler is sonny outcutes him. either way they r incredible n im hooked……..they made me do a good set of dancing and my feet will heal for a week but it was worth it.

  13. Red Baraat is very original and unique. You guys are doing a great job in raising awareness of Indian music. Keep up the good work. A baraat in weddings is in old tradition and has been continued on since then, but mixing dhol with trumpet is a great way to bring out modern beat of music.