[25 March 2013]
Red Baraat is a Brooklyn-based musical collective that fuses the dhol-based bhangra music of India and Pakistan with a horn-heavy funk that recollects swampy southern-US murk. Ringleader Sunny Jain provides both vocals and beats on the dhol, a cylindrical, two headed drum that is vigorously whalloped at both ends (with either drumsticks or bare hands) to provide a staccato, propulsive rhythm that is unmistakable. If you’ve ever watched an Indian movie, you’ve probably heard the uptempo rhythms of bhangra music, especially if you’ve ever sat through a wedding scene.
Speaking of weddings, “baraat” is the Hindi and Urdu word for the bridegroom’s wedding procession (traditionally involving a horseback-riding groom, attended by his friends, family and perhaps hired musicians), so here’s another clue as to the band’s orientation: This is, if not wedding music precisely, then at least music intended for celebration. There are no ballads here and nothing even remotely downtempo. It’s dance music, party music, shake-your-rump music. With nine members in the band providing everything from guitars to horns to layers of percussion to hollered vocals, there’s a lot going on here, all the time. But is it any good?
Well, yes and no. Individual songs are great fun, and there are some sweet moments with the chattering bhangra and the swampy blues/funk all blending together into a seamless and satisfying—even transcendent—masala. Elsewhere, though, the songs seem stuck in a rut. They begin and they end, but they often don’t seem to particularly go anywhere; they just run out of steam. And the constant exhortations, the yelps and whoops and “Hey hey!“s, grow a little exhausting after a while.
First the good news. There are some great songs on here, none better than the title track, which marries a classic blues-rock chord progression with a frenetic collection of dhol beats, skronking horns, shehnai (I think it’s shehnai—the reedy snake charmer’s flute—but maybe it’s a saxophone), and tongue-in-cheek vocals. It all works, and it’s all fabulous, and at six and a half minutes it’s the longest track here. No wonder the band named the record after this tune: It’s a monster hit just waiting for the right platform—a film, maybe?—to break out.
There are other good songs too. “Private Dancers” delivers a bracing dose of bhangra mixed with reggae rhythms and brass, while “Azad Azad” benefits from a snaking bassline, a skittering bed of percussion and an irresistible groove. All these songs—and others—are master classes in energy and verve, and are probably a blast to watch, and dance to, live.
Elsewhere, though, the formula falters. Particularly early in the album, there is a certain sameness to the song structures and arrangements. Album opener “Halla Bol” is fairly unmemorable, but at least benefits from being first (so there is nothing to compare it to in the listener’s mind). The same can’t be said of “Tenu Leke”, “Sialkot”, “Apna Panjab Hove”, or numerous other tunes here. At some point, the relentless percussion, the brass accents and verbal chant/singing all start to bleed from one song into the next. This is far from saying that “the songs all sound the same”, but there is definite movement in that direction.
Regardless, this is a record with undeniable appeal. The energy is relentless and the beats will be new enough to many western listeners. It’s a terrific party album, or a record to throw into a mix with a handful of others. If you’re looking to get your Bollywood-wedding-scene groove on, this album just might do the trick.