Sunny Jain remembers when he was 5 years old and captivated by a brass band at an uncle’s wedding in India. That moment planted the seed for what would become his percussion and horns-driven ensemble Red Baraat, named after the term for a groom’s wedding processional.
“I wanted to aim for this idea of an Indian brass band, but I wasn’t looking to just be that, because that’s not who I am,” says Jain, who launched the Brooklyn-based group in 2008 after several years as a jazz drummer. “I’ve never been someone who wants to replicate something that already exists. It’s about learning the tradition and the culture and the vocabulary, then trying to assimilate that into my expression.”
He balances all of that in the buoyant churn of Red Baraat, echoing Indian bhangra as well as jazz, funk, hip-hop, go-go and New Orleans street brass. For its March 6 date at the Sinclair, the group extends that vision with the Boston debut of its Festival of Colors, a celebration of the Hindu holiday of Holi that showcases “the creative South Asian diaspora in America,” Jain says. Between sets by Red Baraat and eclectic opener Rupa & the April Fishes, director Prashant Bhargava will screen his 35-minute film Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi. It’s a glimpse into that frenetic spring celebration in India and a nod to the centennial of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, with a score by pianist/composer Vijay Iyer. The film depicts people throwing colored powders at each other in the street, though Jain says that Holi custom won’t be allowed inside the club.
Growing up in Rochester, N.Y., Jain was steeped in both Indian culture and assimilation, the youngest child of immigrants who practiced the religion of Jainism. “I was literally sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor, playing with my blocks while my mom was singing and cooking and playing Jain bhajans on cassette tapes,” he says. “Dad had a reel-to-reel player and was playing classic Bollywood songs from the ’50s to the ’70s, amazing melodies that I started revisiting in college.”
From his two siblings, the aspiring drummer absorbed Motown, Top 40 and classic rock, particularly the prog-rock of Genesis, Rush and Yes in his brother’s record collection. Jain studied bebop as a teenager, leading to a jazz career that included his own collective as well as work with pianist Marc Cary (a D.C. native who introduced him to go-go) and drummer Kenny Wollesen’s Himalayas. That marching band inspired him to pursue participatory music, Jain says. “You might as well be in a practice room if you’re not going to have a rapport with an audience.”
Jain then began to focus on the dhol, a barrel-shaped drum strung over the shoulder and briskly batted with sticks at each end, which let him take a front-and-center role with Red Baraat. “It’s a tremendously powerful instrument,” he says, “not just volume-wise, but timbre-wise.”
At first, the drummer/composer says, “I wanted to transition into pure acoustic instruments, with just drums and horns, and the element of being able to be mobile was definitely intriguing as well.” He sought musicians with experience beyond jazz. Sousaphone player John Altieri came from a classical background. Trumpeter Sonny Singh had played ska and rock. Members eventually began to sing and rap as well.
Red Baraat evolves further—sonically and thematically—on its month-old latest album, Gaadi of Truth, whose title translates to “journey of truth.” “It’s about dialogue, learning about one’s self and learning about others,” Jain says of the pluralism-minded album, which expands its musical references with both Indian and electronic touches, even closing with remixes by producer Karsh Kale and orchestral folk-pop group Lost in the Trees. Altieri experimented with synth-based pedals on tour with David Byrne and St. Vincent, and he brought that back to Red Baraat. Jain also introduced effects to the sound of his dhol, and he added a guitarist to Red Baraat on record and, now, on the road.
“It’s a living, breathing organism, so it can’t stay constant,” Jain says of his band. “It needs to always travel and move and shift into whatever creative territory that may be.”