Red Baraat is a horn ensemble inspired by the wedding traditions of northwestern India, which must be the place to have loud, funky weddings.
The nine-piece NYC group explores the melodies and harmonies of Bhangra, the folk dance music of the Punjab region, and delivers them with the exuberance, visceral power and infectious grooves that Americans might associate with New Orleans street music.
As it turns out, Punjabis also have a distinctive brass band tradition, born when the imported drums and horns of their British colonizers were applied to Indian rhythms and melodies. In bandleader Sunny Jain's ancestral homeland, no wedding celebration is complete without the local brass band, and that's what he had in mind when he formed Red Baraat ("baraat" being the Hindi term for a wedding procession).
"A lot of people assume that I was going for a New Orleans-Bhangra type of fusion thing, but I was strictly coming from a North Indian background, with some jazz influence, and just wanted to funk it up," Jain says. "I wasn't thinking about New Orleans necessarily and the brass band tradition there, but there is some kind of inherent similarity between Bhangra music and the New Orleans kind of bayou feel, and also in Brazilian and Latin music. I don't know what it is."
Red Baraat's lineup includes drum set, hand percussion, soprano and baritone saxes, trumpet and bass trumpet, trombone and — in lieu of bass — a sousaphone, to hold down the low end. Jain, who performs elsewhere as a jazz drummer, adds a twist by fronting the band with a dhol, a two-headed Indian drum worn over the shoulder and played with special sticks.
"It's synonymous with Punjab and Bhangra," he says of the instrument. "I use the drum for heightening purposes. It's the top voice, the top sound in the ensemble, and it's what distinguishes our band from other brass bands."
On debut album Chaal Baby, released in January, the material is mostly instrumental, punctuated by the occasional group holler. The selections include traditional folk tunes, original compositions and even adaptations of Bollywood pop hits. The horns combine for melodic themes and then trade extended jazzy solos, with results that hold potential appeal for both the headphone and the dance floor.
The seemingly disparate blend makes sense to Jain, who grew up in the States listening to classic rock but also heard plenty of his parents' Indian music before heading off to study jazz in college.
"The Indian music was part of me growing up," he says. "My mom played Indian religious songs and Hindustani classical music, and my dad would play Bollywood songs from the '50s and '60s. Around 18 or 19, I started playing Indian classical music, on the tabla, and slowly went to the dhol from there."
Clearly, however, being a purist purveyor of traditional music is not Jain's goal.
"I don't try to adhere to a certain genre when I'm writing," says Jain, who recently released another album with his slightly more conventional jazz quartet. "I try to let it all out and not worry about if it's too Indian or too jazzy or too 'world' or too this or too that. The intention of our group is to get people up and dancing and to interact with us. We like to blur the lines between us on stage and the audience out there. ... (As the band evolves) we're incorporating a few more originals, and our sound is becoming a lot more funky – really dirty funky."
Red Baraat performs Sept. 17 and 18 at Lotus Fest. Their album, Chaal Baby, is available for free audition below and can be purchased via Bandcamp.