Sounding Board

Red Baraat’s Sound The People Is A Boisterous Love Letter To Cultural Harmony

I couldn’t wrap my head around all the Royal Wedding hoopla that took place last month. I mean, beyond my inherent wariness of celebrating a colonialist institution and the usual skepticism that comes with excessive interest in the lives of people notable for hardly any reason beyond wealth, I just can’t understand getting that excited about a white wedding. Don’t take offense, I’m sure those celebrations are as lovely and moving as they’re depicted in the movies. I even hope to go to one someday! But I’ve been raised on Indian weddings my entire life, and Indian weddings are a thoroughly different beast.

Without even mentioning the richer color palettes, food with actual flavor, and music holding a timbre far more amenable to really getting down (a daily facet of these ceremonies, which typically run a glorious five days on average), the core leg up Indian weddings have on their Western counterparts is the baraat. The greatest among nearly a dozen functions, a baraat is essentially a parade by the groom’s wedding party held as they journey to the venue. The baraat often features its own band and set of dancers, but everyone in the procession typically contributes to the spirit with singing, stomping, and handclaps, all while the groom rides above regally veiled on a mare encircled by his loved ones.

Carried by the infantry march of the dhol — a shoulder-slung dual-sided drum smacked loudly with sticks, the most perfect instrument ever created — the amalgam of participants marches without break to the bridal party, who await to greet them upon arrival. (I’ve participated in this ceremony in both parties, and it is considerably more enjoyable to be with the groom – it can take hours for them to make their way down.) What follows is the milni, where the corresponding family members from each side (i.e. father and father, aunt and aunt, second cousin and second cousin, etc.) embrace one another with garlands, before a pissing contest ensues to see who can lift the other higher in their hug. It’s a huge amount of fun, and the best symbolic ritual I’ve seen for the community-minded unification love brings.

It is from within these musically-expressive traditions that Red Baraat came to be. The Brooklyn-based bhangra-fusion ensemble rose out of bandleader Sunny Jain’s early attempt at an Indian brass wedding band in New York, before he realized the need to spread the jubilant sonics and energy of South Asian marital customs to the masses. As the concept took shape prior to their 2010 debut Chaal Baby, the group’s sound blew up considerably beyond the trappings of mere “wedding band” music, encompassing a jazz-approached riot of big band Panjabi instrumentation with singed edges of psychedelic rock and hip-hop.

Red Baraat’s trademark is how they conjure a storm of stampeding percussion, courtesy of Jain’s frenetic dhol, which is highlighted by breakneck melodies and a dynamic tonal palette, stimulating over headphones the spirit of a grand nuptial caravan while also boldly weaving in settings from across the globe. Throughout their now decade-long discography, the troupe — newly slimmed down to a six-piece, additionally comprising a guitarist, drummer, and three-piece brass section — has wielded their compositional acumen to remain true to their roots in the South Asian diaspora, while also reflecting just how wide of an experience that can embody.

For listeners untrained in the distinct modes of Eastern music, this allows an entry point into understanding their rush of notes as actual songs. But Red Baraat aren’t throwing bones to Western audiences to attract a crowd; there are no ham-fisted compromises to tone down their source material or crossover attempts based on Bollywood caricatures. Rather, the funk, ska-punk, and other American forms that make their way into the music are layered intricately within the same threadwork as the ragas on which these songs are pulled from. Each piece is a gesture of cultural harmony, rendering not only genre irrelevant, but the geographic placement of those sounds.

Now on their fifth full-length and follow-up to last year’s Bhangra Pirates, the band is making explicit their tacit argument for how embracing hybridity enhances both sides to heights unattainable without either. Sound The People, out this Friday, is a response to anti-immigrant sentiment and rising nationalism via a marriage of relatively young American styles with the classically Indian. Across nine songs capturing expansive, sweat-stained performances by the band’s all-star cast of musicians, Sound The People is both a love letter to embracing other cultures and a battle cry against segregation, both in music and our communities.

That position is laid out most starkly on the title track, which features poster child Panjabi-American MC Heems with his finest political megaphoning over a thick sludge of sousaphone and sax. He travels the world across two verses and sketches the ideal fantasy of an actual “melting pot,” while simultaneously taking aim at the structures preventing its realization. In a measured hostility, Heems spits, “I pray to God in English, she don’t hear me no more… Tried to scrub my skin so they can see if my color run.” Sitting at the center of a tracklist predominantly composed of blissful bombast, it speaks loudly to underscore all the pain that underlies the beauty of the brown experience. “Sound the people, the sounds of my people” is a message of celebration alongside a warning — that if we don’t put ourselves on, they’ll find a way to shut us out completely.

Red Baraat’s more typical M.O. is to fight fear with cheer, which they do across much of the rest of Sound The People. Case in point is “Kala Mukhra,” a spin of the traditional “Gora Mukra” that was originally sung in praise of a “fair-skinned face.” Pakistani singer Ali Sethi mixes up the lyrics to instead celebrate those of darker complexions, while Sunny and co. emboss a classic desi backdrop with bending guitars and a high-contrast trumpet refrain. The gesture isn’t a radical proposition, but a long overdue step towards balancing appreciation for people of color even in cultures created by people of color.

Outside of any larger mission of social unity, Sound The People represents the strongest holistic iteration of Red Baraat’s strengths. The album is full of moments that hit with the force of a spiritual awakening in their execution. The dhol breakdown at the end of “Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi Hai” is a striking coda of concentrated musicality to the six minutes of sweaty Eastern lounge music that took place prior. Meanwhile “Moray Gari Suno” remixes the trademarks of “Chutney music” — a Caribbean-influenced take on Bhojpuri folk — into a playful concoction resembling half-speed surf pop. The song crests with subtle improvisational flourishes to its main theme, evoking a street fair on a hot day in Nepal, that runs out its last two minutes with cathartic flair.

To open yourself to Sound The People is to experience a world that expands the range of colors within those you already know. This isn’t just “Indian music” but soundscapes unique to Queens, in tune with New Orleans and Southern California, and of the same lineage as the Parliament Funkadelic, King Crimson, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. It’s not Bollywood, for anyone who might be quick to cast it as such from its country of origin, but it embraces Bollywood. It also embraces contemporary reference points, from the maximalist jazz now in vogue via Kamasi Washington (opener “Next Level”) to boisterous backpack rap (“Sound The People”).

It’s a full-bodied realization of a sound I’ve been craving particularly over the last few years. I’m a product of the classic children-of-immigrants story that is divesting from the cultural cloth of your youth before gradually finding your way back to it once you settle into yourself. Distanced from the internalized shame imparted by being cast as a foreigner for my skin color growing up, I’ve come to seek out my Panjabi roots as a piece of myself lost. But coming of age on hip-hop and indie rock in a small West Coast town, I would never be capable of immediately holding the Indian musicians of my parents foundation as my own.

My experience is not one of regional cinema, daily devotionals, the bustling of street carts on the way home after school. Mine is eating tacos for dinner before seeing a local Bay Area rapper, listening to Norwegian pop on Spotify while walking through Chinatown, and concocting malaise within material comfort. Red Baraat encompass that vast generational distance, opening a world for me to rediscover my heritage through the context of my American urban upbringing. It’s an inclusive patchwork respecting a multiplicity of experiences. It’s reverentially revolutionary.

I was put onto Red Baraat by a fellow brown coworker, a Western-raised South Asian immigrant who grew up on classic rock — “Bohemian Rhapsody” discovered through Wayne’s World, the Beatles from his older brother’s CD collection — and, like me, at first only listened to sounds from abroad due to their cultural proximity: Sgt. Pepper was his path to Ravi Shankar, Graceland his introduction to African music. Those early glimpses of sonics that exist outside the Western canon beget a search for something more in his listening. The specific commonality in our backgrounds that underscore the appeal of this kind of Americanized Eastern composite imbued his suggestion with a resonance I rarely feel from the sources of music recommendations I typically rely on.

Part of that is the personal nature of the exchange, the bonding that comes with sharing with someone art that’s made your life richer. But the other half is in the satisfaction of receiving a recommendation knowingly perfect for you because the person bringing it to your attention came to the work from the same place, searching within those sounds for the same thing. That is, music that sees the world the same way we’ve seen ourselves. Music that called out specifically for us to come find it.

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Sound The People is out 6/29 via Rhyme & Reason. Pre-order it here, and stream it below via Brooklyn Vegan.

Tags: Heems, Red Baraat