Plaza de César Chavez Park in downtown San Jose saw the Jazz Summer Fest return for its 27th festival season last month. The quintessential Punjabi dhol was in the line-up, front and center of the eight-member Red Baraat band. Baraat is the Hindi word for wedding procession; and as such, it evokes a feeling of celebration and kinship.
Red Baraat’s claim to being the first baraat band in the United States is unchallenged. In 2005, they played at no less than 40 weddings. Sunny Jain, leader of the band and the dhol player, believes Red Baraat could only have happened in New York City, asserting, “Sure, the concept is rooted in Indian Brass Band history, but there’s a rhythmic sensibility that comes from living and playing in NYC. There’s a certain edge, grit and urgency traversing the environment of this city, and this is reflected in the music that gets made here. Another important distinction of living in this city is that you can hear all types of music by walking down a single block. You can hear a cabby playing Punjabi music, a jazz trumpeter practicing in his apartment, and a delivery biker playing merengue on his boombox. It’s this city and the wonderful artists that inhabit this place that brought about Red Baraat’s sound.”
Between 2006 and 2013, he occasionally played the dhol and dholak (a smaller folksy drum) for Junoon, a popular group recognized for their Sufi rock sound. For Red Baraat, he mostly plays the dhol. When asked what it was like to play among these two very different acoustic scenes he says, “While both bands are very different in sound, my goal is to always support and create music with everyone on stage.” He shares the Red Baraat stage with Rohin Khemani (percussion), Chris Eddleton (drum set), Jonathan Goldberger(guitar), Jonathon Haffner (soprano sax), Sonny Singh (trumpet), Ernest Stuart (trombone), and John Altieri (sousaphone). Their latest album LiveWire was actually not recorded as an album; it is a collection of tracks they played during an in-studio interview for KEXP in Seattle.
The music Jain grew up with, as a first-generation desi (jazz, rock, hip-hop) seems to have asserted itself in LiveWire: it has significant electric guitaring by Goldgerger, which is atypical of the baraat sound. For example, the track, “Horizon Line” starts off unusually with strings. Jain expands, “What you’re hearing at the beginning of “Horizon Line” is the guitar, dhol and sousaphone being processed with various effects that we are manipulating. Then, comes the powerful horn melodies.”
Incidentally, their previous album Gaadi of Truth also had some departures, in that it had a Spanish number written by the trumpeter, Singh: “Se Hace Camino” was a call for action; todo el mundo puede cambiar, se hace camino al andar (the whole world can change, we (will) make the road by walking). LiveWire also includes a bonus remix by The Police’s Stewart Copeland of the track “Gaadi of Truth.”
Another desi artist in this year’s Jazz Summerfest was Ganavya Doraiswamy, whose voice was a strong, dulcet and husky combination of richness. She was featured with Alfredo Rodriguez, a classically trained Cuban pianist in Tocororo. Rodriguez has been mentored and produced by Quincy Jones, the legendary Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, best known for being the producer of Michael Jackson’s mega hit, Thriller.
NPR had this to say: “Tocororo is equal parts sophistication and sincerity. It’s the sound of a prodigiously talented Cuban embracing the wider world of music. Best of all, the album resonates with the possibility of all the other new music we’ll discover as Cuba itself opens up to the world.”
With the inclusion of Doraiswamy, Tocororo opens itself to the South Indian classical world, every poly-rhythm in step with the complex tonal trajectories. It is one of the most stylish and more importantly, Jazz-y interpretations; matching, perhaps for the first time so elegantly, each Carnatic vocal musical note to the Western piano tone. On visiting her website, one is welcomed by an open throated soundscape “Aa ri ra ra ro” in Tamil followed by the classic “Summertime” originally by Louis Armstrong, where she forays seamlessly in and out of classic Americana and Indian classical sounds. Thus, the word “high” starts in rural America but ends in the high notes of a raga; you can’t tell if “Summertime” is Western or Indian any more if not for the English lyrics.
The vocalist Doraiswamy is multi-talented. She plays the jalatharangam, an almost extinct Indian instrument, and is trained as a Bharatanatyam dancer. Doraiswamy has catalogued the hundreds of mudras or hand gestures, found in bharatanatyam and published the document for Florida International University’s SRAI Conference under the title “Rasam for the Dancer’s Soul.”
Lately, Jazz has been a catch-all for all kinds of experimental music. True, what constitutes Jazz is not well-defined; each musician has a personal definition of it. Above all though, Jazz is a sound that is born out of an improvisational or organized coming together of individual expression. Red Baraat and Doraiswamy are certainly on the path of adding unique dimensions to the world of Jazz.
Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of worldmusic and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz and other genres.
Check out redbaraat.com and ganavya.com.