Indians and Cowboys and Everyone Else
Sunny Jain has spent his career as a drummer and composer, bridging the gap between Eastern and Western music. As the son of Punjabi immigrant parents, born and raised in Rochester, New York, Jain played around on tablas, sang the traditional bhajans, and, by age 12, had gravitated toward the essential American musical genre, jazz. In the early aughts Jain served as a U.S. State Department Ambassador of Jazz, toured the world with Pakistani Sufi Rock band Junoon, and released several albums with the Sunny Jain Collective. In 2008, Jain founded Red Baraat, an eight-piece band inspired by the brass-heavy, raucously joyful spirit of a North Indian wedding procession—a baraat—fused with funk, jazz, rock, D.C. go-go, and, to hear Jain tell it, whatever sound inspires. Before a recording session for Red Baraat’s fourth album, Jain spoke about the band, the social function of their high-energy shows, South Asian pop-cultural visibility, and serving as a musical embodiment of pluralism in a time of heightened nationalism.
Eamon Whalen: What was the impetus behind Red Baraat?
Sunny Jain: Well, how far back do you want me to go? The first thing that sparked it was, I was five years old and I saw a brass band in India at my uncle’s wedding. So that was the first seed that was planted in me. Around 2005 is when I started to transition away from leading jazz groups—I still consider myself a jazz drummer, even though I’m not necessarily playing drum kit as much anymore. I started playing the dhol drum around 2001 and I just fell in love with the instrument. I envisioned a different performance, something where I wasn’t just behind a drum kit, something that I could be mobile with, like the dhol. I wanted a band that… could jump off the stage…. no division between band and audience. We could be on the same level, on the same ground, literally next to each other rubbing shoulders, bumping into each other.
EW: What did that freedom of movement bring out?
SJ: It was much more about community engagement. The dhol’s history is in Punjabi folk music. It’s music of the people. The dhol and Bhangra music is very much related to workers, to farmers. It’s something that’s played outdoors, in a festive spirit during spring harvest. So there’s a relationship to that drum, a relationship to that history, and there’s a relationship to it being able to allow me to be part of a community.
…It also brought out a very basic, energetic spirit in me. [T]he physicality of playing the dhol was just much more different than any instrument I’ve ever played. The striking of it, the resonance of it, the way it hangs on your body and becomes part of your body. It’s a whole different thing. Because of that, it unlocked this spirit in me. …When I’m offstage, I’m a pretty mellow guy, but when I play that instrument, I am not a mellow guy. The band has seen it constantly: I’ll be exhausted sitting around before a show, but then I’ll just go crazy onstage… it comes from playing with the other members and the energy they bring, how I feed off of them and feed off of the audience. But it starts with the drum.
EW: The members of Red Baraat have a diverse range of musical, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. How did the band come together?
SJ: It was an intentional mix in terms of music. …I knew I wanted sousaphone, because …it looks amazing, it sounds amazing, I want that in my band. I was coming from a jazz community, but I didn’t necessarily want this to be just a jazz project. I wanted to have different flavors and different sounds and personalities coming in… I wanted that diversity in sound. I didn’t want to just replicate an Indian brass band, because that wouldn’t be true to who I am. That’s a huge inspiration and influence, but I’m American, I grew up here listening to progressive rock, Motown, jazz, I grew up with a host of sounds in Western [and] Eastern sounds….
EW: Almost all American music is derived from a Black American tradition, and Indian music and jazz have had a historical, influential relationship. Did that connection factor into your inspiration?
SJ: Absolutely. I found jazz at age 12, and …I started learning… that this is a Black American musical tradition. This is coming from the blues, this is coming from slavery, this is coming from the history of America. …Jazz is also a very open, democratic music that all people play, but still you have to know the history and where the expression is coming from. …I hold [it] dear to my heart for the fact that it’s improvisatory, for the fact that it’s spontaneous and lives in the moment, for the fact that it’s a reflection of society and emotion in the moment… what is happening to people, what is happening in communities, what is happening around the world.
EW: Why do you think Black American Jazz musicians like John Coltrane grew to embrace Indian music and spiritual traditions?
SJ: I think it’s different for every Jazz musician. I know, for Coltrane, it was spiritual awakening and a musical awakening—you can’t really separate spirituality and music. It was a culmination of those two things. I think a lot of people delve into Indian music these days because there’s a rich history and vocabulary there. …[Coltrane] met Ravi Shankar a few times, and I think they were even planning on doing an album together before he passed. Coltrane is one of the people we remember for starting that cross-collaboration with Indian music and Jazz music but I think the main thing that drew him there was the spirituality of it.
I grew up with Jainism, I identify with Jainism, but I don’t necessarily talk about religion… like “this is my religion.” Jainism informs everything I do, especially this idea of anekantavada, which means multiplicity of viewpoints. Non-violence is another main tenet of Jainism, which is why I’ve been vegetarian my whole life, and, for the last several years, I’ve gotten closer to a vegan diet because of the cruelty of animals in the meat and dairy industries. So, Jainism has very much informed who I am.
But also, I believe in humanism. I believe in humanity. I believe in Buddhism, Taoism. There’s a variety of faiths… about teaching the belief in compassion and love and understanding. To me, that’s more important than saying I ascribe to a certain religion. There were rituals I grew up participating in that I don’t necessarily do anymore, but those devotional songs that I grew up with are still my lullabies… I love and am grateful for the religion I grew up with, I just don’t necessarily say anymore that I’m a religious person. I’m a spiritual person.
EW: With the collection of backgrounds and influences in there, what is Red Baraat’s song-writing process?
SJ: One thing I want to correct is the New Orleans brass thing—I understand the [association] because of the horns, but really it’s coming from the Indian brass band tradition. It’s go-go music… there’s ska music, there’s reggae, there’s Latin music, there’s some Brazilian samba coming through. [The] different members of the band have studied and delved into different kinds of music. Everyone just tries things out—it’s always encouraged. Our lyrics don’t have to be in English, they could be in Spanish or Hindi or anything else. Everyone in the band is a composer.
EW: When you talk about Red Baraat, you talk about high-energy dancing, community engagement—it’s all very party-oriented. I’m curious, what do you see as the larger social function of a party?
SJ: I think the idea is unity and joy. …It’s not about partying with abandonment…, it’s consciously for the purpose of joy and unity within anyone and everyone. What happens is there’s a strong reflection of the band onstage from the audience. There’s different ethnicities, different ages coming together when we perform. And that’s such a strong statement in itself that there’s no need to be onstage and say anything more, because we’re playing music and bringing people together and understanding a basic human need, which is community.
EW: [I]n a time of heightened White nationalism, how important is it that your band is a living embodiment of cross-cultural collaboration and appreciation?
SJ: [That “nativism” is] something we’ve been facing the last seven years—and many of us have been facing it our entire lives. We can’t hide the skin color, we can’t hide the turbans we wear. Whatever it may be that identifies us as an ethnicity or religion, it’s something we’ve all dealt with individually.
EW: Red Baraat’s most recent album, “Gaadi of Truth,” has a very anti-xenophobic message.
SJ: So, gaadi in Hindi means train or journey, it means traveling. So it’s this traveling of truth. The premise behind it is that there’s no absolute truth, there’s multiple truths. [S]o how do we come to understand this? How do we reason with this xenophobia, racism, and bigotry? …[T]he past three years, we were traveling 150 days a year, doing around 100 shows a year. [W]e always get into interesting conversations about what’s happening in the world, what’s happening in certain communities, what’s affecting us as people.
On top of that, we’re interfacing with different communities that are engaging us in a not-so-positive way. Right off the bat, there’s that rap on “Gaadi of Truth” about going through TSA, and how much trouble we have, as a band going, through airports. Or traveling through the South, in Alabama or Mississippi, and getting pulled over for really no reason except for the fact that there are a couple Black people and a Sikh in the car. Or someone across the street yelling “Osama!” at us. The bigotry one faces being Muslim… it’s just very present. [A]s the band, we’re traveling around, we’re a motley crew, and sometimes people don’t how to interface with that. The reality is that there are things that require dialogue, that require a bit more attention, and that can’t just be let go because, “This person’s a bigot, this person’s a racist, and that’s what it is.” Yes that’s what it is, but let’s have a dialogue about it. The Gaadi of Truth is addressing that. …[T]hese are conversations that need to be happening.
EW: How else do you fuse activism with your art?
SJ: Who I am, whether I’m Jain or Indian or South Asian or a drummer or an activist, they’re all part of who I am. So I won’t compartmentalize them when I’m composing music or performing. One thing I’m conscious of is… when we’re on the bandstand, how much we should say. …I don’t want to become a preacher, preaching to the choir and that’s it. …The agenda when we’re onstage is to bring people together, not to ram ideas down on people. …I’m conscious of not delivering a one-way message. …With all that said, there are things I believe in and that I will address. Whether it’s about the atrocities happening in New York with the NYPD, police brutality, and Black Lives Matter—things like that need to be addressed, they need to be acknowledged, and it’s because of the humanity of it.
EW: Red Baraat emerged right alongside the Internet totally consuming music and breaking down “genres.” Has the Internet made more room for fusion, for Red Baraat?
SJ: I believe so. I think the Internet has opened a lot of things, around the world, for people to explore and discover things on their own. Growing up as an avid listener, I always loved discovering something, whether it was through a magazine or listening to the radio and tuning to different stations. The discovery of it is beautiful, and the Internet is just a portal for getting lost in discovery. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to YouTube to watch a video and bounced around for an hour. It certainly has opened up and turned on new listeners to our band, as it has with anyone who makes music. It’s a beautiful space that’s leveled the idea of who controls music, which for many years was the record labels, the record industry. But now, anyone can make music.
EW: Has any reception to Red Baraat surprised you?
SJ: When we started playing in D.C., people heard the go-go sound in our music. I was very happy about that. …Then, when we went to London for the first time, we were called a punk band… the Guardian was writing about this “punk bhangra” band. I’m always surprised about how many different people are out there. There’ll be a six-year old Indian kid dancing next to an eighty-year-old African American man. …I’ll see the juxtaposition and just think, “Yeah, that’s what this is all about.”
EW: Why do you think your music appeals to such a wide audience?
SJ: It’s literally the universality of what’s happening. The sound, the stage presence, the look, there’s so many various elements coming together. There’s individual expression coming from each member of the band and who they are and how they represent themselves… there’s a collective force coming together as this band. There’s always something for someone to grab onto. The instruments look interesting… There are so many elements coming together that make it exciting. And it doesn’t mean that everyone has to party and dance, they can sit there and watch and be engaged with the spectacle.
EW: What’s been the reception from Indian and South Asian people who grew up with the music your sound originates from?
SJ: Well, like I said, there’s something for everyone. The South Asian people know some of the Bollywood and Punjabi numbers we’re playing. They know the baraat music, they hear that relationship. It’s exploding among South Asians, they love it, wherever we go there’s a healthy South Asian crew. [As a band] we haven’t been to India or Pakistan yet. We’ve come very close … but those shows fell apart.
EW: South Asian and Indian people are becoming more visible in American life, but they still lack representation in pop culture and music. Do you see that beginning to change?
SJ: We’ve seen M.I.A., she’s definitely risen. There are few others that are gaining momentum. It’s partly because we’re just starting to delve into those areas in America. There was certainly immigration happening in the late 1800s from the South Asian sub-continent to here, but there was also a mass movement that happened in the late 1960s through immigration policy to bring lawyers and scientists and doctors over here.
…I’m part of that crowd, that generation when my parents came in the 1970s and I was born here. When I was growing up, I didn’t know any South Asian doing music, let alone jazz. I grew up in Rochester, New York, and the first person I met doing that was Vijay Iyer. Strangely enough, our parents knew each other. But that wasn’t until I was 20 or 21 that I met another South Asian person doing music. That’s totally different now. There’s so much creative expression by South Asians in the States right now, whether that be through journalism or dance or in music. It’s beautiful, and I think it’ll continue to grow.
EW: Can you tell me about Red Baraat’s new record?
SJ: Yes! I’m actually parked at my studio right now, about to go in and start writing some songs. The larger concept has been immigration, but I’m also thinking about gentrification versus old communities, especially related to New York City. There used to be a huge Bengali community in Harlem. There’s the Hasidic community, the Russian community, there’s so many old communities in New York, but [also] so much gentrification happening that it feels like the City has lost its “Wild, Wild West” mentality. The graffiti from the ‘70s and ‘80s—I was looking at pictures of old New York recently like, “What the hell happened to that?” What a period of exploration. I’m thinking of the “Wild, Wild East,” trying to bring back that spirit of human exploration. There’s something missing. I’m not doing it in a way where I’m lamenting about the past, because there’s so many beautiful things still here, that’s the point.
…It’s always interesting for me to drive through my neighborhood, which is historically Black… then drive through the Hasidic community into Williamsburg, which used to be Spanish, then became Polish, and now has developments and big buildings everywhere. I want to bring back this mythical character of the “Wild, Wild East.” Musically, what I’m focused on is what were called “Curry Westerns” from the ‘70s. There was a pivotal movie called “Sholay,” based in Spaghetti westerns, but done with a Bollywood twist. Sholay is a cult album… and, sound-wise, I’m looking to that. And I’m thinking literally about a mythical character… an Indian cowboy, coming through the city, discovering these old communities… This is a storyline I envision in my head that inspires me and helps me write.
EW: So, like, reinventing the American cowboy?
Eamon Whalen is a music journalist and the editor of Greenroom magazine. He is based in Minneapolis, MN.