Red Baraat has to answer questions that other bands don't.
They answer them for well-intentioned fans, journalists, law enforcement, and entitled strangers on the street. Often the questions are about the music: how you label your propulsion of brass and horns led by the dhol, an instrument largely unknown to Western listeners? But just as often, they're about the people creating the music: personal questions about identity—cultural, spiritual, national—whose answers demand grace and nuance even when the questions skip those social formalities.
A purpose-driven band, Red Baraat has always made music as a vehicle for and celebration of pluralism. It is built by players of divergent backgrounds and faiths, and seeks an audience as diverse as its creators.
But when we take this guiding ethos of pluralism out of the abstract—say, off the paper of this bio—and onto the roads between the stages where they perform all over the world, the band become unintended spokespeople for frustratingly dated (at best) or tone deaf and ignorant (at worst) questions about race, identity, and 'world' music.
Might seem a little heavy when we're talking about the same band NPR famously called "The best party band in years", but it is reality, and Red Baraat's founder and bandleader, Sunny Jain, has been answering these questions in some shape or form his whole life; an experience he shares with most of the members of his band. The group's new record Gaadi of Truth (Sinj Records 2015) is largely shaped by this dichotomy.
In 2012 The group's Shruggy Ji debuted at #1 on the Billboard World Music charts and propelled the band on a two-year world tour, hitting major festivals like Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits, and the Monterey Jazz Festival, along with clubs, theatres, and arts centers. Along the way, they sold out rooms as diverse as the Luxembourg Philharmonic and the Bowery Ballroom, and the band was embraced by a wide arch of cultural illuminati that led them to play at the request of The White House, Peter Gabriel, TED, and the Olympic Games.
If Shruggy Ji was a statement and celebration of this pluralism, Gaadi of Truth is a reflection of the reality the band has faced bringing that message to the world. It is, in part, an expression of their experience on the road, often having to explain themselves and their sound as they traverse the globe. The title track— "Gaadi" is Hindi for car or train—directly addresses the practical reality of the band's life touring and promoting their music. From airport TSA lines to the shaping of identity narratives: "What are you anyway?" asks an omnipresent inquisitor: "Where are you from?" Not satisfied with the answer, comes the rejoinder, "I mean where are your parents from?" As such, it might not be a surprise that this is the band's darkest sounding work to date. This new tension in their sound is the band's response to imposed narratives of personal or musical identity. This struggle and the musical evolution that results from it practically jumps from the record.
And when it comes to issues of identity, we can say that Jain and the band have logged enough hours answering questions about the perceived differences between us. In many places, their appearance as a group makes a statement before a note of music is played.
"It's always struck me as interesting because this is the world I grew up in. It's the world we've all lived in since the beginning of time, yet most people don't have that direct connection to people of different ethnicities or backgrounds. In this day in age, with technology, social media, and a global interconnectedness, it is each person's responsibility to educate oneself of the planet we share with each other. It's not my job to teach you about that."
And more truth is, sometimes a deeper reading is necessary to avoid not only musical misconceptions, but also cultural misappropriations. Red Baraat's oft-cited 'New Orleans' influence, with respect, does not exist. The heavy lifting brass section so present in the band's sound comes from a 300 year-old tradition of Indian marching bands that dates back to the start of British colonialism.
It is easier to tell you what Red Baraat isn't, than what it is. "It's not necessarily bhangra music anymore," says Jain, referring to the North Indian rhythm that initially underpinned the band's sound. "It's not a brass band anymore." Gaadi of Truth reflects a broadening of the band's sound, with digital and electronic flourishes serving to sharpen an acoustic foundation. The successful assimilation of collaborators like the prince of indie-rock guitar, "Delicate" Steve Marion, on "Bhangale" and multi-national Sikh MC, Mandeep Sethi, on "Zindabad" reflects the band's broad and sure footed sonic dominion. Even the choice to include club-ready remixes from Karsh Kale and the out-of-character good time dance jam from chamber ensemble Lost in the Trees on the record is a statement of the band's open approach to sound and community that makes sense under the Red Baraat umbrella. But for anything resembling a label, you'll have no success getting that from the otherwise eloquent Jain.
"What is Red Baraat now?" Jain ponders... "I don't really know."