Sunny Jain and Red Baraat make bangers from bhangra

Boston Globe, January 29, 2012

NEW YORK – The drummer Sunny Jain tells the story of a time when he auditioned before Wynton Marsalis, the great trumpeter and consummate arbiter of all things jazz in general, and particularly New Orleans.

In lieu of a bass drum, Jain had substituted a dhol – the two-sided drum from India’s Punjab region that typically hangs from a strap slung over the drummer’s shoulder, and is played with bamboo sticks.

Using the dhol, Jain beat out a series of Punjabi rhythms, the kind that are played in the region’s energetic (and increasingly exported) folk music called bhangra. Hearing this, Jain says, Marsalis felt something quite familiar.

“And Wynton said, ‘Man, this sounds like New Orleans!’ And there is that cross-relation of those rhythms, that feel, that buoyancy, that swing that Punjabi music has, that the dhol has.’’

As an up-and-coming jazz drummer with numerous awards and commissions over the past decade, Jain has had plenty of chances to swing behind the drum set. But it’s in his role as a dholi, or dhol player, that Jain swings the hardest, leading Red Baraat, the unique and highly funky hybrid of a marching band that he founded four years ago in Brooklyn.

A nine-piece outfit as diverse in ethnic origins as in musical affinities – bhangra, Bollywood, funk, go-go, and hip-hop are a few ingredients – Red Baraat has made a joyous and sweaty mess of small dance floors and prestigious stages from its New York base to big-time national and European festivals. Its Boston debut comes Wednesday at T.T. the Bear’s.

Its energy is captured on the group’s first CD, 2010’s “Chaal Baby,’’ and even better, on the live set “Bootleg Bhangra,’’ recorded at the Brooklyn club Southpaw. A take on the Punjabi hit “Hey Jamalo’’ features a passage of Spanish vocals. On “Baraat to Nowhere,’’ the MC urges the crowd to strip, “nakedness bumping on the dance floor.’’ At times the horn section sounds positively avant-garde. A honking sousaphone holds up the bottom.

The lineup expands on that of a baraat band, the brass and drum band that escorts a Punjabi groom to his wedding. But the natural US reference, if for the sheer verve alone, is indeed New Orleans and its brass bands such as the Soul Rebels, Rebirth or Hot 8.

Red Baraat has performed, in fact, at the city’s Jazz Fest and at some of its clubs. “It’s deep,’’ Jain says. “This group never was necessarily borrowing from New Orleans music. But we were welcomed instantly. There’s a kinship. It was almost like a stamp of approval.’’

Not that one was needed; but recognition is something that Jain, who was raised in upstate New York, appreciates. “Growing up playing jazz you’re already marginalized, and even more as an Indian,’’ he says. In a response to the tug of two worlds, he devoted some of his first jazz arrangements to Punjabi and Bollywood songs he heard at home.

Alongside his jazz career, Jain toured with the Broadway show “Bombay Dreams’’ and gigged with Sufi-rock group Junoon, among others. But Red Baraat has provided his most fulfilling expression thus far. The group’s success is leaving him less time for jazz, he says, and he doesn’t mind.

A big part of the pleasure, Jain says, is simply getting out from behind the drum set and playing at the front of the stage. At first, he played both roles, but now with Tomas Fujiwara on drum set and Rohin Khemani on percussion, Jain focuses on dhol and emceeing.

“After a while, I was like, I just need to be up front with the dhol,’’ he says. “And the great thing about having Tomas and Rohin is I can stop playing, and the band is still cooking. I can conduct, and cue things. It’s very liberating.’’

Red Baraat also involves more singing and rapping than at the beginning, whether by Jain, trumpeter Sonny Singh (who came up playing ska and reggae), bass trumpeter MiWi La Lupa or sousaphone player John Altieri.

“There’s more vocal stuff going on, more interaction with the crowd,’’ Jain says. “This is not a quiet band, and we’re not going to have audiences that are quiet.’’

For Fujiwara, who grew up in Cambridge and is a highly regarded jazz drummer in his own right, the presence of multiple percussionists only adds to the good vibes. “There’s space to share,’’ he says. “It’s a lot of fun for us to throw around ideas.’’

From the Indian roots of nearly half the band and much of its sound, Fujiwara says he’s picked up not just music, but also cultural references and inside jokes. “We spend a lot of time together, being friends, goofing around,’’ he says. “The jokes are both highbrow and lowbrow.’’

India, meanwhile, is one place where Red Baraat has yet to perform. When they do, Jain says, it will make for an interesting experiment. Unlike, for instance, sitar or vocal classical music, brass bands and dhol do not enjoy high-culture cachet in India.

“There’s this idea that anyone can pick up a drum and just bang it,’’ Jain says. A dhol-led band, let alone one as eclectic as Red Baraat, might blow a few minds. “That’s why I want to go there,’’ Jain says, formulating a challenge to the Indian crowd: “See how you take us now!’’