One of British colonization’s most peculiar impacts on Indian culture is the use of large marching brass band in Punjabi weddings. The music these bands play is notoriously lackluster — they are the butt of many wedding jokes in North India.
On the 23rd of January 2013, I attended a concert by the band Red Baraat at The Sinclair in Cambridge, MA. The octet is from Brooklyn and comprises a soprano saxophone, trumpet, bass trumpet, trombone, sousaphone, a standard drum set, Latin percussion, and an Indian dhol. The band plays music inspired by songs played at North Indian weddings–‘baraat’ means wedding procession in Hindi. Interwoven with the bhangra beat, however, are New Orleans jazz idioms and go-go drumming.
Red Baraat did not introduce what they played, assuming that the mostly Indian audience would recognize their interpretations of popular Hindi songs. Rather than individual pieces, they played a continuous, interwoven set of songs for over two hours. Each horn player took extended solos over each song,often embellishing the melodies with chromatic ideas. While the key and time signature would often change, everything was immutably up-tempo. The only slow song they played was a rubato version of the Hindu prayer ‘Om Jai Jagdish’ , with which they ended the night.
The few pieces that involved singing were performed in Hindi. Most of the lyrics revolved around the idea of revolution, freedom and finding one’s place in multicultural society. The songs often talked about the immigrant experience. The band integrated very different styles of folk music in a surprisingly novel way. Bhangra is a purely homophonic tradition, while jazz revolves around ideas of harmony and polyphony. Rather than emphasizing these differences, the band chooses to focus on both forms’ highly improvisational nature. In the concert, they used the Indian sa-re solfege system alongside western harmony, and juxtaposed cyclic Indian rhythm patterns against measure-based drumming. Though similar in lineup, they were nothing like Indian wedding bands.
As their encore, the band played an interesting version of an infamously bad Indian pop song — ‘Tunak Tunak’ by Daler Mehndi. While the original starts with a set of particularly dull electronic drums, ‘Red Baraat’ began with an extended call and response between the different percussionists. To this, they soon introduced tabla bol, a tool used by Hindustani classical musicians to vocally express rhythm. Soon, I could hear interesting harmonic changes behind the familiar melody of ‘Tunak Tunak’. There were ‘ii-V-I’s and ‘I-vi-ii-V’s juxtaposed against one of the least jazz melodies imaginable. The energy of the performance blew me away — everyone was dancing and singing.
As an Indian who loves jazz living in America, I felt a strange sense of cultural resonance with the band. Here were a group of people from a place very different from me, playing songs one hears everywhere in my hometown. They were playing a mixture of a two musical idioms with which I am familiar. One was imparted to me by my community and the other I have discovered all by myself.