Red Baraat’s music and its debut CD Chaal Baby are a study in contrasts. The earthy dhol punctuates the sophisticated strains of jazz; the improvisational jazz is kept in check by the homogenous sound of the baraat band (a baraat is a wedding procession); the tipsy “Dum Maro Dum” leads to the intellectual flight of a “Baraat to Nowhere.”
It is difficult to not be utterly astonished by the sound of Red Baraat. Red Baraat has nine members of varied ethnic and musical backgrounds playing at least ten instruments, including the uncommon South Indian tavil and the Arabic-Greek doumbek. Sunny Jain is the founder of the band. In his words, “I wanted a raw, organic primal sound of drums and horns—no electrified instruments-—and the ability for this band to perform without being miked up. I love that people hear different things in our music from jazz, to bhangra, funk, New Orleans brass bands, rock, African, and Brazilian.”
Listening to “Balle Balle,” the first number, will give you pause; Chaal Babymakes you wonder exactly what it is you’re listening to. By the end of the third track, you’re trawling the Internet for videos—seeing is believing, right? Wrong. The sense of amazement lingers on. Models at NYC Fashion Week sashaying to baraat-style music?
It’s easier for non-Indians to accept this music at face value; “a raucous, blaring, clashing celebration of a multitude of cultures come together as one joyous explosion.” Desis fresh from the homeland associate the baraat band with a wedding. Desis born in the United States wouldn’t think of fusing the revered jazz-quartet sounds with the effervescent dhol. It takes time to get over the shock. But then the “Bangin Bhangra and Brass Funk” groove starts to settle in. The open-air rendition of “Tunak Tun” at the Lincoln Center is not just infectious, it’s visual heroin—just watching them make music is a shot of pure adrenalin.
So how did Sunny Jain think of it? It turns out Sunny had his musician buddies play at his own wedding in 2005. Word spread about this new baraat band and yes, for three years, these musicians played at Indian weddings before becoming the current Red Baraat! “Some of the most exuberant celebrations of love I have witnessed have been at Indian weddings,” reminisces John Altieri (sousaphone).
The visual transference of the Red Baraat sound is not accidental. Each artist has played with one or more band members before going “dhol-n-brass.” Altieri was pals with Michael MiWi La Lupa William (bass trumpet) at the Eastman School of Music; Jain played with the latter’s band Thought, in NYC; Fujiwara and David “Smoota” Smith (trombone) had both played for the band Burnt Sugar. The connections between the musicians seem contrastingly improvised and selective, like their music. That the group does it with a masterful abandon is another reason they’re getting recognition. The melodies are discussed as a group; the main melodies are largely owned by one musician during rehearsal. Though “when we hit the stage in front of a dancing audience, it changes, and you never know what to expect,” says William.
A key catalyst for their new sound is that each is an accomplished musician in his own right. Arun Luthra (soprano saxophone) has his own quartet called Svaha. Mike Bomwell (baritone saxophone) has served as Director of Jazz Improvisation for the University of Michigan. Sonny Singh (trumpet) co-founded bands Turban Jones and Outernational. Rohin Khemani has been performing from the age of six through Canada’s Royal Conservatory of Music. Tomas Fujiwara (drums) is an ex-STOMPer and leads his quintet—Tomas Fujiwara and The Hook Up. William has recorded with several groups, including Brazilian Girls. Altieri has performed solo, chamber and orchestra music all over the world. Smith leads the band The Perfect Man. Jain made his professional debut in Bombay Dreams and has drummed/ composed for the likes of Norah Jones and Junoon.
Chaal Baby stays true to its baraat band roots and borrows from popular Bollywood hits such as “Mehndi Lagake Rakhna.” The jazzy “Arcana” has the least band-like sound, while the title track is named after the beats of the dhol-chaal (gait). Both have been intelligently composed and skillfully played.
The likeliest innovation to be adopted, of all the Red Baraat contributions to music, is the addition of the dhol to jazz. However, their key sound—the raw baraat band—could prove to be a landmine: It is over-whelming at times for the CD. They could perhaps cultivate the solo-listener audience separately from the dancing crowds by flexing the band sound-muscle just the right amount.
Such a great inter-genre musical experiment should not cater to just the live audience; a minimalist style of their performing music will be just as rousing for the car or at-home listener.
All tracks of Chaal Baby can be heard at www.redbaraat.com.
Priya Bhatt is an avid follower of world music. She has had training in Indian classical music and continues being a student in spirit.