Review by Joel Reed
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
I suspect that most in the audience would need an internet search to learn that a “baraat” is a North Indian procession in which the groom and his family travel to the wedding venue, accompanied by a dohl – a two-sided drum – or even a full brass band. Though we were strangers to the word, Red Baraat’s eight musicians grabbed our attention before they even started playing their recent concert at MASS MoCA’s Hunter Center in North Adams. As the band arrayed themselves on stage, Sunny Jain and his dohl at the center, with turbaned and bearded Sonny Singh playing trumpet on his right and the dread-locked MiWi La Lupa on bass trumpet to his left, we could see that this wasn’t going to be a typical night of indie rock or new classical in North Adams.
The band demonstrated why they’re the hottest thing right now in world music with the opener “Aaj Mere Yaar Li Shaadi Hai,” a pumped-up Bollywood wedding song from their first album Chaal Baby. The song’s quick swing from an abstract exploratory section to a Punjabi-Dixieland sound hooked the crowd for the rest of their 90-minute set.
Their layering of traditional northern Indian themes with American musical idioms in “Aaj Mere Yaar” – and the excellent musicianship of each band member – is why Red Baraat’s second album, Shruggy Ji, debuted at #1 on Billboard’s World Music chart when it was released in January, 2013. Their performance also showed why “world music” isn’t quite the right way to describe the band. Every one of the 13 songs they performed at MASS MoCA was infused with the sounds of Bollywood and Punjabi-British bhangra music, while within each are easy segues to jazz, hip hop, funk or dub and back. With these contemporary influences they fit better in the “world beat” category, than in the folk traditions of world music.
But their work isn’t the kind of global hybrid that “world beat” suggests because, despite the exoticism of the group’s song titles, influences and even stage presence, this is a band from Brooklyn, and its members are young luminaries in contemporary New York jazz and new-music composition circles. Sunny Jain’s hyphenated South Asian-American background is neither more nor less exotic than any other hyphenated American artist, such as the Sikh-American Sonny Singh (who grew up in North Carolina and Arizona), MiWi La Lupa from Buffalo, African-American trombonist Ernest Stuart, or the band’s other members – John Altieri on tuba, Mike Bomwell on saxophone and Rohin Khermani on drums.
Red Baraat’s songs seamlessly interweave bhangra, jazz, funk, Motown, hip hop, reggae and more because the band’s musicians grew up listening to all of that. They’re not a “world music” band, but they’re a worldly one in the way that many American cities with second, third or longer-ago generation immigrant neighborhoods are worldly. They’re also a dance band, and they kept the crowd at MASS MoCA on its feet through their entire set: bopping heads as if at a rock concert, twirling like Deadheads, writhing in rave fashion, or showing that they had their hip hop moves down cold.