Music

Sunny Jain's Impressive 'Wild Wild East' Is a Compelling Call for Human Rights

Photo: Ebru Yildiz / Courtesy of Pitch Perfect PR

Brooklyn bhangra heavyweight Sunny Jain draws on jazz, rock, and folk in a new, anti-xenophobia album Wild Wild East.

Wild Wild East
Sunny Jain

Smithsonian Folkways

21 February 2020

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.

9
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.

Books

New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.

Music

Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.

Music

Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.

Music

New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.

Books

'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.

Music

Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.

Music

Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.

Music

M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.

Music

Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.