Al Gore was dancing. The Nobel laureate and former vice president -- who still has a reputation for stiffness -- was moving his feet like a Soul Train dancer. And the reason Gore's feet were shimmying was Sunny Jain and his band Red Baraat. The moment occurred on February 28, 2012, when Red Baraat performed at the TED Conference in Long Beach, where Gore and other luminaries were in attendance. No one -- not even Al Gore -- can resist Red Baraat's music, which is an infectious hybrid of brass funk, hip-hop, jazz, go-go, and North Indian bhangra rhythms.
"We gave a quick performance in between TED talks on the main stage," Jain tells me, "and we saw him out there to the left, kind of mid-center, dancing to our music, which was very cool."
When Red Baraat performs a free concert in San Francisco at the Stern Grove Festival on Sunday, July 21, and another concert on July 22 in Santa Cruz, Jain will be where he always is: Drumming on the "dhol," the big South Asian instrument that produces a voluminous sound; and speaking to the crowds that inevitably say they've never seen anything quite like Red Baraat.
The band's brass section alone is staffed by soprano saxophone, two trumpets, trombone, and sousaphone, while Jain is joined on percussion by two other drummers. Red Baraat's distinctiveness extends to its ethnic composition, with members who have roots in India, Africa, Japan, and elsewhere. Red Baraat, which formed in 2008, the same year of Barack Obama's first presidential election, embodies as much as Obama does the idea that America is becoming, through steps both forward and backward, a "post-racial society." Jain, 38, grew up in Rochester, New York, the son of practicing Jains, followers of Jainism, which believes in nonviolence and a shared humanity. Jain is also active in the faith, and believes music is a chance to express universal emotions that bring out the best in people. Jain played jazz for many years after studying the musical form at Rutgers and NYU.
"Music is a universal language," says Jain, whose band is based in Brooklyn. "By and large, everywhere we play we encounter people of all different backgrounds and ages and ethnicities, and they all find something within Red Baraat, whether it's the bhangra sound, the jazz influence, the funk or go-go beat that makes people dance, or just the raw, primal sound of drums and brass. It's rooted in bhangra music and melodies, but it's got an American sensibility, because all of us were born and raised here, and our musical backgrounds are in go-go, funk and jazz. Everything just kind of seamlessly fits together. The message we're doing is to have dialogue with one another -- this idea of tolerance, and pluralism, and dialogue with one another."
Photo: Markku Aberg.
You can see Red Baraat's impact in the video that documented their noon visit to Google's Menlo Park campus in 2012. Playing on the outside lawn, Jain and his group had tech workers bobbing their heads on a beautiful sunny day. On their albums, they are even more intense, with vocals that rise to the sound (and shout) levels of good rapping. All the while, Jain and his dhol provide much of the group's rhythmic force. While many people imagine the tabla when they think of Indian drumming, the dhol drives a lot of Bollywood music. Similarly, Americans associate brass bands with early 20th-century jazz, however, India also has a brass tradition that is due in large part to the influence of Britain during its colonial rule of the subcontinent.
"The dhol is certainly a central part of Punjabi folk music, traditional music, and definitely Bollywood music nowadays," Jain says. "Five years prior to Red Baraat, I stated playing the dhol and fell in love with it. I was looking to start a group where I could play that instrument more. In early days of Red Baraat, I was jumping back and forth on drums and dhol, but it made no sense to keep doing that. It's interesting to me that there aren't many groups out there at all using the dhol in the forefront. It has the dance-oriented tone and rhythm that you find in Bollywood music. I wanted to feature the dhol ... and to draw from the tradition of the brass band in India in the 18th century."
Photo by Erin Patrice O'Brien.
If you can judge a band by the venues it plays, then Red Baraat, with a CV that includes the TED conference, Google's headquarters, the White House, and large festivals across the United States and Europe, is the right band for the times. That it has already reached this point in just five years is almost head-scratching for Jain.
"It's been an amazing journey," he says. "I never thought we would get to where we are at. We've been very fortunate, and have had a blast."