Perhaps best known for leading Red Baraat, the Brooklyn-based bhangra band known for their electric live shows, dhol player and composer Sunny Jain is unstoppable on new album Wild Wild East, where he mixes jazz, a multitude of Indian folk and classical traditions, cinema sounds, and surf rock. Taking on immigrant and diaspora experiences, this is Jain’s chance to represent himself, his family, and countless other Americans made to feel out of place because of their ancestry. He seizes the opportunity and soars.
The music is phenomenal, but I would be remiss not to extol the virtues of Jain’s liner notes. Said notes begin with Jain’s introduction, not only to his music but to his experiences. He tells of his early life. Born and raised in Rochester, he visited India for the first time at the age of five. He took in the sounds of New Delhi street music, incorporating it into his own experiences of listening to everything from top 40 to Ice-T to jazz to his mother’s Jain devotional music back home. Jain questions the American “cowboys and Indians” narrative just as he questions the conflation of South Asian Indians and American Indians, placing his work today at something of a watershed moment in relations between government and populace. Washington, DC is our wild, wild east, says Jain, a frontier haven for outlaws in charge.
“On the Possibilities of Dislocation” follows. It’s a preface by MIT-based scholar Vivek Bald, who draws on his own experience as the child of Indian immigrants to supplement Jain’s. Bald adds broader context to his and Jain’s narratives, tracing a path of Indian immigration and influence in North America back to the 18th century. It’s an important foundational framework for Wild Wild East‘s eclectic mix of transnational aesthetics.
“Immigrant Warrior” opens the album with bombast, a tribute to struggle and strength driven by powerful percussion and the wailing of an electric guitar. Pawan Benjamin’s saxophone takes the lead near the middle with powerful, brassy runs. The title track follows, featuring Ganavya’s wordless vocalizations. At times, she sounds ethereal, and other times, ferocious, yearning – an airy counterpart to Jain’s sharply relentless drums. Textural complexity is a constant on Wild Wild East (as it is in virtually all of Jain’s work), and Ganavya is a stunning addition to it. Joyful “Osian”, too, shifts between tempos and styles, never letting up.
Rapper Haseeb features on “Red, Brown, Black”, an incisive takedown of lethal white American hegemony: “2019, seen it too often / Ranger with a badge putting black kids in coffins.” Haseeb follows the album’s overarching strategy of contextualizing individual experience within larger cultural paradigms. In this case, it’s the disproportionate and unjustifiable targeting of racial minorities by law enforcement, which Haseeb places alongside pointed critiques of white flight and other instances of racial profiling.
Jain covers a 1952 Hindi film music classic, “Aye Mere Dil Kahin Aur Chal”, with passionate opening dhol and guitar licks lending his version a particularly cinematic intensity. In contrast, “Bhaagi” is an intricate jazz treatment of verses by Indian American poet Ali Mir, poignant, solemn – the beginning of a particularly moving segment of the album. Instrumental “Blackwell” blossoms, gently, with the help of Alam Khan (son of Ali Akbar Khan) on lyrical sarod. Another 1950s film tune, this one with Ganavya returning on vocals, ballad “Hai Apna Dil to Aawara” has a country twang to it. Religious piece “Tumse Lagi Lagan” is one of the more instrumentally minimal tracks on the album, dhol drone and starry guitar ostinato backing Pawan Benjamin’s rising and falling bansuri spirals. The dynamic shifts in “Maitri Bhavanu” are compelling ones, Ganavya singing melancholy pleas for compassion.
After this moving set of tracks, “Brooklyn Dhamal” brings us back to the idea of action. The percussion is in full force once more, and guitars, brass, and feedback build into the album’s climactic final moments, a sonic peak that closes the album with a sense of urgency. Rightly so, as Jain’s entire album has been working so hard to tell us. Wild Wild East presents stories that speak to the importance of human rights and criticizes a distinct and dangerous lack of them for so many Americans with immigrant or indigenous backgrounds.
Creatively and ideologically, this is a perfect storm for Jain. Even in his already formidable body of work, Wild Wild East stands out as an album that not only deserves to be heard, but needs to be listened to. An understanding of the stories he tells here with such musical brilliance is liable to change hearts and minds for the better. Sunny Jain is the cowboy we need today, blazing new trails ahead into a sonically marked sense of community.