Red Baraat’s Message of Pluralism: An Interview with Sunny Jain

Red Baraat founder Sunny Jain discusses Shruggy Ji and his band's Festival of Colors shows.

Last year, the Brooklyn band Red Baraat was ranked #8 amongst the Top 50 Coolest Desis by Desiclub. The dhol ‘n’ brass band has seen a rapid rise in their success and repute, having performed this year at an inaugural ball in Washington D.C., during Mardi Gras in New Orleans and then several shows at South by Southwest in Austin. The festive season doesn’t end there, however. Red Baraat is holding a celebration for the Hindu holiday of Holi with two Festival of Colors shows, one in Philly on March 28th and another the following night in New York City. While the throwing of rang (colored powders) may not go over so well with the management of an indoor club, the energy from the band won’t need to be toned down.

PopMatters spoke with Sunny Jain, the founder and frontman of Red Baraat, over the phone to get a sense of what drove him to start the band and to find out what Red Baraat represents — as an outfit, not in translation.

“I need to do something that has a little bit more of an impact… I’ve always wanted to infuse my culture in the music”, Jain explained. He had been “feeling a little disenchanted with not reaching audiences” at a point early in his career playing amongst jazz bands. But having played with the drummer Kenny Wollesen (in the Himalayas) and the alto-saxophonist Hayes Greenfield (in Jazz-A-Ma-Tazz), amongst others, Jain was inspired by “how much love [both of them] gave to their musicians and gave to the audiences. I wanted that interaction that I witnessed”. Furthermore, he desired to incorporate South Asian influences and “play the dhol a lot more”. So Jain gathered up some musicians and just started a band where he plays dhol.

And that was how Red Baraat came into being in 2008. Since then they have released two studio albums, Chaal Baby and the recent Shruggy Ji, plus one live album. The live album captures the intense energy and variety that Red Baraat throws into each and every performance. And that live show draws in a diverse audience. “People can just latch onto various sounds in our music. I’ve had Brazilian people say that it sounds like samba. Desi folks hear baraat, Bollywood and Punjabi rhythms. Jazz musicians hear the improvisation. [Audiences in the D.C. area recognize] the go-go influence. There’s something to latch onto for everyone in the sound. Audiences are attracted to that.”

Any good party band should be able to respond to a crowd’s energy, something Red Baraat manages successfully. But throughout the recording process for Shruggy Ji, Jain stayed focused. “I’m adamant about just saying ‘Let’s just play this music and we’ll see what naturally develops'”. There was definitely some consideration as to how the crowd or audience would respond to the music but “for the most part we composed those songs, put them together, and got this new album out, not based on our live performance but just based on our sound and its natural progression. What was largely a happy and very upbeat sound on Chaal Baby to a more gritty and funkier, more downtempo sound on Shruggy Ji“.

Over the winter, with some downtime between gigs, Jain made the most of his free time; he grew a moustache. Jain now sports an awesome throwback to “’70s Bollywood film” actors under his nose. But perhaps more characteristic of a man whose shirt sleeve is emblazoned with the word “renegade”, Jain publicized some humanitarian causes through his social media channels. He posted a link with information about a vigil in New York for Jyoti Singh Pandey, the young woman who was brutally raped by several men on a bus in Delhi. Jain also shared information about the Manganiyars, a marginalized group in India. When International Women’s Day came around, he sent out a call for additional musicians to lend their support and join him in a rally.

All of this is in sync with a message Red Baraat should bear as their standard. When asked if their music was revolutionary, Jain responded, “It’s not necessarily that ‘our music is revolutionary’ but [rather] everyone should carry the torch and be an individual.” People should express their individualism as “opposed to just being nationalistic… Nationalism breeds separation and isolationism sometimes. [It’s] an us versus them mentality. The revolutionary aspect is more inclusive about just being expressive, just being yourself and having tolerance for one another. Understanding that this world is about pluralism”.

Jain, an ambassador for desis, clearly expresses himself as he hammers on the dhol by which he fuels the Red Baraat engine. Thus the band is able to create a unique pluralism and draw a diverse group of people to come have fun under the drum.