Sunny Jain of Red Baraat
GC: Let's start off talking about your instrument, the dhol. Tell us about its traditions and talk about how you came to focus on the dhol.
SJ: The dhol hails from the state of Punjab, which is northwest India and Pakistan. It's a barrel-shaped instrument. It's really a section of a tree trunk that has been hollowed out, and two goatskins are put on either side. There's a bass side and a treble side. The one I play is called the bhangra dhol, which you play with sticks, and then there are smaller versions of the dhol called 'DHOLKEE' and 'DHOLICK' which you play with your hands.
GC: So you play both sides with the striking stick? Kind of like you use with a talking drum?
SJ: It looks like that, but it's not used in the same manner. A talking drum, you're actually hitting it with the curved part, the point. The stick on the dhol is on its side so the point is coming down so you get a lot of surface area with that curve shape on the stick.
That's used for sliding up and down the head as well to get some slight pitch bends and muffling. The treble side is played with a bamboo stick. The wonderful thing about bamboo is it's super flexible and super strong, so you get a lot of whipping motion with it, so you can get a lot of retroflex on the treble side.
The drum is synonymous with Punjabi culture, but also bhangra music and dance. It stems back hundreds of years when there was Punjabi folk music and the tradition of this drum in Punjabi folk music or bhangra music was emulating the farmers out harvesting the crops during springtime and these drums were intended to be played outdoors, celebratory of harvesting the crops. A lot of the dance moves and previous folk rhythms stem from that tradition.
The rhythm of the dhol, that swing pattern, it's synonymous with a lot of samba music that you hear. It's in Brazilian music. It's synonymous with New Orleans, that bayou kind of feel. It has that swing like GoGo music. The syncopation is very much like jazz as well. You hear that throughout a lot of different types of music. It's just interesting, exactly how it migrated around and why that has become the heartbeat, so to speak, but it's become like the heartbeat of many rhythms of music around the world.
GC: What is your take on the definition of Red Baraat's 'World Music'?
SJ: It's interesting. I think people gravitate towards calling this a mixture of Punjabi music and New Orleans music because they hear the horns, but in fact there was no relation in the writing or the instrumentation related to New Orleans brass music at all. It was actually related to the Indian brass band tradition, which dates back to the 17th century. That's the brass tradition that I'm familiar with.
Over the course of time we've been adopted down there. We're kind of like cousins in terms of the music because there is such a heavy rhythmic and brass sound coming from Red Baraat that it was assimilated in. It has that swing pattern.
But the seed was the Indian marching band tradition. It wasn't just to emulate that because I was born and raised in upstate New York. Aside from growing up with various Indian music, and Punjabi music and Bollywood music and Hindustani classical, I grew up with rock and roll. I grew up with prog rock. I grew up with jazz.
GC: So was this a love of your parents, the Indian music?
SJ: It was music of the culture. It was music of the culture that they listened to in the household and I took to it as well. It was music I grew up listening to. I grew up listening to devotional songs and Bollywood songs and Punjabi music. It was what was played around the house. At the same time my older brother and sister were playing Casey Kasem's top 40 and my brother was throwing on Rush records and Genesis records.
When I first went to my drum teacher to learn drum set — I'm first a drum set player before I came to Indian percussion — I went to the guy and I was like, hey I want to learn some John Bonham and Neil Peart licks. My drum teacher said I want to show you Philly Joe Jones and Art Blakey and Max Roach first because I want you to play in the jazz ensemble next year in junior high. And I took a liking to it because the rhythms were interesting and it was something I'd never heard before and I was motivated to learn it on this new drum set I had. He ended up being my teacher for the next eight years, from age 10 to 18. His name's Rich Thompson and he lives up in Rochester, New York. He teaches at Eastman.
GC: It's nice when you make a connection like that, and have a teacher that long.
SJ: Yes. Rich was fantastic. He left for one year and I remember that one year that he left, I hardly played my drums. He came back the following year and he was just like, man, what happened to you? [laughter].
GC: Like, “Where'd your chops go?”
SJ: Yeah, he's like, come on, man! [laughing] He busted my chops about it and I really got back on track. He was a great motivator and a great teacher. I was very fortunate because he was there in elementary school and he was there in junior high and for whatever reason he kept getting jobs in the schools where I was. It wasn't because of me. It just happened to be that all of sudden he got promoted to being the high school jazz band director. So then I went high school and he was there leading the jazz ensemble. And I was studying with him privately, so I had very regular interaction with him and he taught me a lot, as well my other high school band teachers.
The idea of it was to meld all these certain personalities and sounds that I grew up with. It's always been a goal of mine to express this identity of being a South Asian American through music. It's partly my way of reconciling a failure, I feel, in not being able to speak my mother tongue, not being able to speak Hindi and Punjabi as well as I wish I had learned when I was younger. For me playing music is a way I can communicate to my relatives. It's a way I can communicate to anyone, regardless of verbal language that one needs to speak, a dialect or anything.
With that, as well, the sound of Red Baraat was not just supposed to be my identity as an Indian American or South Asian American, but much more an identity of this global civilization I've grown up in. There are so many types of people coming from different backgrounds. I wanted that to seep into the music. I wanted to learn from someone else coming from the Black church. I want to learn from someone else coming from ska and reggae. I wanted that music to seep in because it was going to make the sound that much more rich.
GC: World music traditions very often marry nicely with American music traditions. I'm sure you know Gogol Bordello.
GC: They take an Eastern European sensibility and bring it into a more Americanized format. So in looking at your instrumentation, correct me if I'm wrong, the only non-acoustic instrument in your group is the electric guitar. Is that right?
SJ: Yes, that's a new addition. The group started out as just drums and horns, which was purposeful back in the day. It's moved. It's traveled. It's migrated, as music does and as sensibilities do. But the guitar, we just added it in January/February of this year.
GC: I bet it works great in club environments where you're trying to get a full engaging sound.
SJ: Well, the band had a full engaging sound before. It's not that. It's just a different timbre and I think it's bringing more sustained harmonies. It's bringing that pad. I used to write like that for the horns and the other horn players do as well, where we're writing fifths or we're writing triads or maybe some chords here and there. So there is a rich pad coming from the horns, but what this allows it to do is, you don't have to breathe the chord. The horn players don't have to hold and sustain it. The guitarist can put it down there and there's a nice pad, a sonic pad underneath all the horns.
So the writing has changed because of that. My approach and the way I'm hearing it is writing and writing for the band is changing. But it's just a different sound. It's not better or worse, necessarily. It's just a different thing. I think I experienced it when we had Steve Marion guest on one of our tracks for the latest CD. I invited him to play a show with us back in October. It was a feeling that happened just one section where he was soloing and the piano player starts soloing. And I'd never felt this feeling ever before on stage with a band, where I was just so invigorated and so enthused that I literally wanted to throw my dhol and start kicking things over. It has inspired me and just brought so much energy in my, like, oh, my God, what's going on? This is crazy.
I remember coming off that stage thinking that was the best show ever. What happened there? I hadn't felt that in five or six years. I've felt beautiful things with the band previously, but I hadn't felt that. That's when I was like we need to get guitar in the band. There's a blend with the guitar and soprano that's very beautiful. If the writing's in the right register and they're playing in the right register it almost sounds like one unified instrument that you can't really distinguish between the guitar and the soprano, which makes it nice for some of the Punjabi lines that I write.
GC: A really nice tone played with a nice soprano player: flugelhorn and soprano sax. Try that on for size. That's a beautiful sound.
SJ: And soprano sax? Yeah, I can hear that. You know, it's allowing us to play differently, too. There are sections of songs that are Hindustani classical music, there's an open section called the [alop] we're kind of exploring the raga before you actually get into rhythm. There are a couple of sections in the song, there are a couple of songs that have that section in the beginning where now I've given it to the guitarist. I've given it to Jonathan Goldberger saying, okay, you being the song. It's vibrato.
GC: There are a number of your pieces that start with 30 seconds of pretty free, just kind of all the instruments almost getting to know one another before the rhythm kicks in. Beautiful atmosphere.
SJ: Right and then there's being able to expand more because of the guitar, where we might take a couple of minutes now, two, three minutes, maybe five minutes — I don't know, we just really go for it now. It's making everyone play differently. It's just a different sound.
GC: Speaking of plugging stuff in, you've got that kind of ramped-up subsonic bass on the sousaphone. What is that device?
SJ: That's a new addition as well in this latest venture into what we're doing. We're adding effects on the sousaphone. We're adding effects on the dhol as well. We're electrifying what once started as simply acoustic and drums and brass. We're traveling elsewhere.
GC: Do you play a horn?
SJ: I don't play a horn, no, but I've been writing for quite a long time now. So I do a lot of arrangements. I write as well, but the other guys in the band are also bringing in originals. I think at the end of the day it's always a collaborative effort when you're making music, when you're playing with other folks because their sound and their personality when they're improvising and their ideas, whether it's in the rehearsal room or on the bandstand, come through and we all have to be receptive to that and open to that.
So it's kind of like I'm coming in with something completely finished and saying, “Play this.” Each song comes in differently for me. Sometimes I am very specific. I'm like, no, this is what I want. Other ones I'm like here it is. Let's see where it goes. You know, maybe the drummer will come up with a groove that's fitting and maybe Sonny, the trumpet player, has an idea about why don't we change the improv section, the solo section like this. So it is open and collaborative like that and everyone is contributing.
GC: I was talking to a great composer-arranger, Michael Mossman, heavy jazz trumpet player.
SJ: Oh, sure, I know Mossman. He went to Rutgers.
GC: He was talking about doing orchestrations for Eddie Palmieri, Mario Bauza — very high level composing and arranging. He says the worst thing you can do is to try to describe to a T what these fantastic musicians ought to be playing. You give them a framework to operate in and let them apply their craft.
SJ: Definitely. Even when I was putting the band together I was very specific on who I wanted in the band because I knew their playing. I knew their sensibility. I purposely was avoiding having all jazz musicians because I didn't want to just bring a jazz sound. I was looking for other people that had different genres of music that influenced them. I knew their playing from other various settings.
But yes, that's very important when you're writing and when you're playing with people, to know what they're capable of and what their strengths and weaknesses are to leave room for that to blossom.
GC: So the horn lines, how proscribed are they from a compositional point of view?
SJ: Those are written out. Those are like the vocalist of the band. Those are the melodies, songs. There are naturally improv sections, which I'm sure you hear, or some of the changes. But those are all written out, the various lines and arrangements, orchestrations; whether it's a Punjabi line in the soprano while the trombone and trumpet are holding some half notes. All that stuff's written out.
GC: So the new record, I kind of did a little scrambling homework. I wasn't familiar with your wonderful band. The new record I think is my favorite one. It sounds a little heavier, a little like there's more at stake. I mean the party goes on, but it just sounds really mature and very evocative. I really liked it.
SJ: Thank you. It's definitely a progression in our sound. The band's been together for some years now and gone through some changes. I think part of it is reflected in being on the road a lot. You get into a lot of conversations on the road within the band, but also with people that you meet. You're coming in contact with different folks. We're an interesting-looking band, let's say, and people are always kind of struck by that first before they even hear us play. Sometimes it's cool and sometimes it's not so cool.
GC: In composition, what notation program do you use?
SJ: I use Finale. Been using that for eight years.
GC: People usually adapt a platform and then stick with it.
GC: Do you use virtual instruments for playback to see how the harmonies are working and that kind of thing, use the orchestra, like the [Garritan] that comes with it?
SJ: Yes, the Garritan that comes with it as well. Part of it —it gives me an idea of ranges, of where maybe I might be placing the trombone versus the trumpet to make sure that isn't clashing and maybe I need to drop the trombone and octave or something.
But, you know, it's a start, but really it gets finished in the practice room with, okay, that sounded good on my computer, but it sounds bad live. We've got to change that. I definitely do try and use that. Even with the mixing I try and bring down some of the volume so I can get a proper balance, knowing how the players play.
Yes, it's a huge help for me in composing and just being able to hear things back. I'm not a fluid piano player at all, but I know how to compose and I understand theory and I know how to get around, but it's a tremendous help for me.