Sunny Jain of Red Baraat Talks Weddings, Bhangra and Brass

Red Baraat started as a wedding band.
Red Baraat started as a wedding band.
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Thirteen years ago, Sunny Jain formed a band inspired by Indian brass music to perform at his own wedding.
Word spread, and soon Jain, who grew up in Rochester, New York, started getting calls from people around the country asking for his band to play at their weddings. At the time, there were no traditional Indian bands in the United States playing baraats, or grooms’ processions, for Hindu and Sikh weddings.

“So for three years, I was basically building up a repertoire and doing a ton of weddings, like forty a year,” Jain says. “It was under the name Red Baraat Marching Band. Three years after that, I realized I wanted to make this into a full-blown band with a drum set, and not just have it be a mobile brass band.”

A decade ago, Jain morphed the Brooklyn-based Red Baraat into a nine-piece band that fused bhangra with funk, go-go music, jazz and more. Since then, the group has been pared down to a six-piece that includes Jain on dhol (a large barrel-shaped drum used in South Asia), drummer Chris Eddleton, guitarist Jonathan Goldberger, soprano saxophonist Jonathon Haffner, trumpeter Sonny Singh and sousaphonist John Altieri.

“We slimmed down the horn section; it’s been great,” Jain says. “Originally when it started, I didn’t want any guitar. I wanted it to be completely mobile with drums and brass, since I was coming from a modern-jazz background already and wanted a different sound. After five or six years of going like that, I was really wanting some harmony in the band. We experimented with keyboards a little bit, and then we started experimenting with guitars — and there was something that was just really resonating with that because of the percussive aspect of just playing guitar [and] hitting strings, but also the harmonic stuff that Goldberger is able to bring to the soundscapes.”

While the lineup has changed over the past decade, Jain says the band still retains the spirit it had when it started — but now the musicians offer deeper expression and more hills and valleys in its songs.

“We’ve always kept it open to whatever styles enter,” Jain says. “We haven’t necessarily decided, ‘We’re just going to do these styles for this or that.’ I think everyone’s influence kind of comes to the forefront when we’re playing, or compositionally. But one thing that we’ve definitely been experimenting with more is open sections, like rubato sections and more psychedelic spaces, because I’m processing my dhol through effects, the sousaphone is going through effects, [and] now Goldberg’s got his guitar effects. So there’s a lot more of that sonic soundscape that’s happening that builds for a psychedelic kind of experience.”

One example of that psychedelic experience is “Holi Ke Din,” off Red Baraat’s new album, Sound the People, which includes lengthy improvised passages from a few members of the band. Jain, a veteran jazz drummer, says improvisation is one of Red Baraat’s hallmarks.

“I’m often changing songs right on the spot,” he says. “We’re opening up solo sections. We’re trying different things. It’s not always the same soloist for each tune. It’s not always the same beat for each tune. There’s always a skeletal essence that we’re delivering, and intent for each song of what we want it to be. There are a few songs, like ‘Holy Ke Din,’ where we intend for that to be a long kind of journey, a long, psychedelic journey of when we enter the solo realm. We’re always trying to deliver the intent of each song, but there’s always ample room for improvisation.”

There’s some fierce musicality throughout Sound the People, particularly on the vigorous bhangra-heavy opener, “Next Level,” a song that Jain wrote not long after Donald Trump was elected president.

“It kind of spurred this idea of just having more visibility than just being an artist and being present as someone who’s South Asian or a brown person or being an American who’s New York-based and needing to put that out there more,” Jain says. “We’ve always had these types of connotations and social-justice meanings behind some of our songs, but I think this is the first album that we really went forthright through vocals.”

Heems, of Brooklyn hip-hop group Das Racist, delivers a politically fueled rap on the percussion-heavy title track, while Pakistani singer Ali Sethi is featured on “Kala Mukhra.” American poet and activist Suheir Hammad offers spoken word on “Vibrations,” while Goldberger’s guitar playing on the song recalls Shakti-era John McLaughlin. Humorist and actor John Hodgman recites similar passages by Sufi poet and musician Hazrat Inayat Khan on “Punjaub March.”

Jain says that Sound the People started with the writing of “Next Level” right after Trump’s election, and that the songwriting slowly migrated from despair — “which is what we were feeling for the first couple of weeks” — in a more positive direction. “‘Next Level’ is kind of like an ode to this next level of engagement, citizen engagement, where you’re really just dealing with polar extremes of progressive liberals but also this crazy conservative right-wing agenda,” he elaborates. “It’s good and bad at the same time that the Democratic Party is now being pushed with much more of a progressive agenda.

“The rest of the album just kind of came forward from there, again in terms of this idea of unity and the idea of being brown and South Asian, but also how being a person of color is really ripping through all communities in America,” Jain adds. “Black communities, white communities, Asian communities — everyone is being affected by this.”

Growing up in Rochester, he was one of the few Indian kids on his block.

“In retrospect, I didn’t think about it much when I was growing up, because I wasn’t aware I was being targeted because I was brown or I was Indian,” he says, “I just thought, ‘Oh, it’s just kids being kids, or this is what it is.’ It wasn’t until I was a little bit older, maybe like in high school or going to college, that I started realizing that the ding-dong ditch and the spray-painting and the smoke bombs in the house — they were specifically targeted at us. It didn’t really occur to me. I think my parents didn’t necessarily view it as such, or they did and they just shielded us from it. But I also had a happy childhood. I had lots of friends and played lots of music and played sports. I think it was probably average compared to many kids that have trials and tribulations and challenges but also have good times.”

Jain was surrounded by music early on, with his father playing ’60s and ’70s Bollywood music on his reel-to-reel tape deck and his older brother and sister listening to Top 40. He knew he wanted to play drums at around four or five years old, when he heard renowned tabla player Zakir Hussain perform on a classical album of his father’s. When Jain started studying drums about six years later, his mind was blown by legendary jazz drummers Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones and Art Blakey. Since he grew up listening to traditional Indian folk and jazz, he sees the parallels between Punjabi grooves and New Orleans’s second line.

“I was already implementing some of this into my former jazz groups, compositionally and overdubbing dhol with myself playing a drum set,” Jain says. “And there’s something that resonates with the jazz canon as well as with the Punjabi swing.”

While Jain, who’s released four albums under his own name, still does jazz gigs — for example, with his group Tongues in Trees, with guitarist Grey McMurray and singer Samita Sihna — Red Baraat takes up a lot of his time.

Along with other genres that the band explores, he’s found himself increasingly drawn to go-go music.
“I got turned on to go-go music from [pianist] Marc Carey, when he was on one of my albums back in 2010. He was the first one who said, ‘Wow, that dhol that you’re playing is like go-go music.’ And he turned me on to a bunch of go-go music. I thought, wow, there’s similarities right there. New Orleans stuff with jazz, with go-go music, with hip-hop — all those musics have a swing and buoyancy to [them]. So there’s something that just kind of crosses over easily.’”

When all that comes together at a live show, Jain says, people who have never heard Red Baraat before will come up and say, “‘Wow, I’ve never heard anything like that, and I really don’t know how to define it or explain what happened, but that was amazing.’ They are literally just kind of left without words.”

Red Baraat
5:30 p.m. Friday, July 27, Clyfford Still Museum, 1250 Bannock Street, free.

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