Dance Like an Indian: Red Baraat at The Hiro Ballroom
The summer of 1999 I found myself in Kathmandu in a taxi crawling its way through the congested environs of the Durbar square. At one point we came to a dead stop, surrounded by simply too many people to move forward. Softly at first, but gradually louder, I heard the strains of a brass band. I thought it might be a car radio, or perhaps it was coming from a nearby window? But it got progressively louder, the crowd parted briefly and there they were: a full tilt brass band jogging their way through the crowd, playing a madcap melody as they went. I got one brief look, and then they disappeared into the wall of milling pedestrians, their raucous music trailing behind them. I was so excited and curious I had to ask the driver “What WAS that?” His answer was brief and to the point. “It is wedding season. Many bands.”
Such was my introduction to yet another tradition of brass music as it is used outside of familiar Western constructs.
Red Baraat uses this sound to create an exhilarating synthesis of that great Punjabi beat bhangra, and a funky Big Band sensibility. I had tried to videotape them at GlobalFEST but by the time I got to them, the room was so crowded I couldn’t wedge myself in, let alone get a good vantage point from which to shoot. So I was delighted when I heard they would be showcasing the next day at the Hiro Ballroom, where there was sure to be a decent sight line. While the room was nowhere near as packed as the night before – the ballroom is a very large space – the energy was still the same. The video is of the song “Mast Kalander” from the movie “Heyy Baby” (which seems to be the filmi version of “Three Men and a Baby”). The mostly unison horn section lines are performed with gusto and soprano saxophonist Arun Luthra supplies the fluid harmonic and scale superimpositions that push the sound into fusion territory. Michael Williams a.k.a. MiWi la Lupa sings an assertive interlude complete with rap, while bandleader Sunny Jain provides the central focus, emceeing and playing dhol, the two headed drum most associated with Punjabi bhangra.
It’s a far cry from what I heard in Kathmandu; rather Red Baraat pumps out a celebratory New York hybrid that embraces the audience and keeps them hopping.