ARTS & IDEAS: If the Arts & Ideas Festival is any indication, brass bands are having a moment. On Sunday, Asphalt Orchestra played two full sets of delightfully raucous horn and drums on the New Haven Green, including a bit where they left the stage and rioted through the audience; your correspondent's son had the honor of being chased by a saxophone player.
Asphalt Orchestra covered everyone from Thomas Mapfumo and Charles Mingus to Frank Zappa and David Byrne and St. Vincent, in addition to deploying several original compositions. It all felt of a piece, and it should have: Brass bands, after all, have a rich and astonishingly varied tradition to draw on. They can pull from Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, or Benny Moré, then turn around and dig deep in New Orleans, or Eastern Europe, or Mexico—really, just about anywhere in the world.
For Sunny Jain, the dhol player and MC of Red Baraat, a nine-piece brass band playing on June 24, the starting point was the brass bands he heard a lot of in India: "a baraat," he explains to me over the phone, "is a procession that happens for a wedding in North India—it’s something I’d seen since I’d been going back to visit, which I'd done since I was 5 years old."
As he grew as a musician in the United States, he played across multiple genres, as many professional musicians do, but that sound stayed in his head. "I wanted an acoustic band that was primarily horns and drums," he says, "drawing from the Punjabi and North Indian rhythms." But his idea quickly began to develop outward from there, since the horn players he knew had experience with jazz, funk, reggae, ska, R&B, and classical music, "more reflective of being Indian-American," Jain says, than of recreating an Indian marching band in Brooklyn.
Developing the band's material likewise has "always been a collaborative process"; some composition is involved, but the pieces really come into their own by being played in front of crowds, improvised on, pushed and pulled to let happy accidents happen and be used to make the compositions better.
"When you open yourself up to that, things really can blossom musically," Jain says.
Then he stops and laughs.
"You know, I can sit here and talk about the music in an intelligent and analytical way, but ultimately that’s not what it’s about. We’re here to deliver emotion, and that’s something that’s universal. We're to create a global dance party—it’s just music, and the only political message is to understand that the highest religion is humanity."
He talks just like I hoped he would when I was listening to Red Baraat before interviewing him, because all of that comes through in the music. You can hear North India in it, and jazz and funk and ska, too, and it's fun to nerd-out over it and figure out where it all comes from and how it fits together.
But in the end, the genre labels don't mean all that much; what matters is that big, propulsive groove, the energy that rolls off the band time and time again, whether they're playing in a club, at a big festival, or in a church.
"Brazilian people say it sounds like samba, Caribbean people say it sounds like soca, and D.C. people say it sounds like go-go," Jain says. That's how accessible the music is. People find what's familiar to their ear in it and let themselves be carried away by the rest.
In an intriguing scheduling turn, Arts & Ideas has paired Red Baraat with Noori, a Pakistani rock band formed by two brothers—one a trained lawyer and the other a business-school graduate—who left their professions behind to become one of Pakistan's most successful rock acts, putting out a slew of recordings, performing hundreds of shows, and winning a few awards. They're on their first-ever tour of the U.S., and Jain is excited to be splitting the bill with them.
"Maybe we'll get to jam a little together," he says.
That could be something to hear.
IF YOU GO: What: Red Baraat & Noori Where: New Haven Green When: 7 p.m., June 24 Tickets: Free Info: artidea.org
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