A good way to hear Red Baraat, an eight-piece band driven by leader Sunny Jain’s Punjabi dhol and vocals, is on their 2017 NPR Tiny Desk Concert, their second one in five years. A genuine fusion band, they blend so many styles that even when Punjabi rhythms drive the tune, kit drums, and multiple horn players nearly disguise the groove as DC Go-Go. Elsewhere, there are brutal guitar riffs, hints of ska, New Orleans Second Line celebration, funk, and India’s horn band tradition. It’s a euphoric, effortless concoction, bursting at the seams with positivity and blurring cultural lines almost by accident. It’s no surprise that they’ve been a draw on the festival circuit over the last decade or so.
It’s also not a surprise that their trumpet player, Sonny Singh, would exude a similar multi-cultural positivity found in his main band on his first solo LP, Chardi Kala. Yet musically, what’s on offer here is a departure. Where Red Baraat traffics in the party, forward momentum, and an insistence on audience participation, Singh’s solo record often teeters toward balladry. Singh is a Brooklyn-based Sikh, and because social justice and calls to action are at the root of Sikh religious philosophy, these concepts are present on Chardi Kala.
The record’s focus is on recognizing a type of joy found in deep spiritualism as taught by Guru Nanak, who founded Sikhism. Because of this depth, Singh’s trumpet, as well as his voice, are at the service of spiritual oneness. Album opener “Aisee Preet” bursts right in with his voice driven by the dhol, and wrapped in a guitar riff, a soaring horn line, harmonium, and sarangi. This is Indian devotional music as Western pop with a trumpet as a driving force. To hear it is to realize there’s not much else like it anywhere.
The musical gumbo on display here feels organic, as if the musicians can’t help but dip their toes into various styles simultaneously. “Ghadar Machao” features Singh’s nearly Spanish trumpet melody as its guide. Its chorus is a sing-along; it’s also the place where hand drummers give way to a trap kit. Midway through, the tempo and the trumpet line shift, introducing a jagged electric guitar solo before returning to the chorus. It’s a song begging for high rotation on a streaming service or surrender at an outdoor festival. In other words, one need not know Punjabi or Hindi or be aware of what genres are underpinning any of it to get with it.
For the album’s next several songs, the simmering tempos allow for vocal hooks, while tablas and harmoniums appear just often enough to remind a listener of the music’s Indian roots. On tracks such as “Turiya Turiya Ja” or Mitar Pyare Nu” it all becomes a bit syrupy, the ballads, one after another, too safe. But then Singh’s goal isn’t to capture the fire of his main band, nor to aggressively demand an audience recognize the dark forces of capitalism, as the Outernational, a band he once played in, might have done.
This is Singh using Western pop’s global power to celebrate non-westerner beliefs and involve an audience that knows Punjabi and Hindi, the languages he sings in. It might be seen as a subversion of pop’s disposability. Eventually, he moves beyond the ballads to include some guest poetry and a nearly Mariachi vibe on “Rebel”. Finally, the album’s last and briefest track “Rahao” features Singh’s gorgeous middle register trumpet over a guitar. It feels like a final statement of fragile hope for our very survival.
Chardi Kala displays an artist comfortably at home with his own spirituality and a variety of styles. Where it often falls short is in its dependence on pop balladry’s more bombastic corners for its core thrust.