Brooklyn-based bandleader, composer, drummer, and dhol player Sunny Jain — better known as the founder of the bhangra band Red Baraat — will perform three distinct shows in his residency at the Symphony Space on the Upper West Side starting at the end of this month.
The New York City cultural institution will host Jain, the leading voice of the burgeoning movement of South Asian-American jazz musicians, between January 28th and February 9th. In an exclusive with the Brooklyn Paper, Jain shared details about each of his shows.
The first, “Wild Wild East,” is a project Jain recorded for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution.
“This first show is about superimposing the immigrant experience on myths of the American cowboy, since cowboys were mostly immigrants, Mexican vaqueros, anyway,” said Jain. “It’s a combination of Rajasthani and Punjabi folk music mixed in with jazz, mixed in with a kind of psychedelic. I’m trying to approach this as a curry western. It’s something that Bollywood movies did in the ’70s, but it was very short-lived. It is a playoff of spaghetti westerns with my own spin.”
Jain’s family roots start in what is now Pakistan. His family moved to the eastern side of the country, closer to India, and in the 1970s, his parents migrated to the U.S. This part of Jain’s heritage prevails in his music.
“I was drawing things from Ennio Morricone,” he said, referring to the Italian composer, who wrote more than 400 scores for cinema and television in the ’60s and ’70s. “He wrote a lot of these scores for the spaghetti westerns, but he used vocal calls that were almost emulating natives and indigenous people that, to me, were kind of frightening, so I replaced all that with, with Punjabi melodies.”
The New York Times called the title track “furiously propulsive,” and many critics have acclaimed the album as Jain’s best work yet. Music outlet Pitchfork wrote “Many of these compositions are intellectually thrilling to unravel.” The performance will feature Ben Parag as vocals, Lynn Ligammari with the tenor saxophone, Shubh Saran in the guitar, and Almog Sharvit playing bass as Jain takes the drumset, dhol.
“I think about Punjabi and jazz music together in the sense that there’s this swing in buoyancy,” he said. “And it’s always been present in my work cause these rhythms and these feelings really kind of go together a lot. It’s very similar to New Orleans music, it’s very similar to Gogo music. Each has its slightly different take on where the swing is felt, but that’s what I’m mostly fusing together.”
On Saturday, Feb. 4, the residency continues with “American Lullabies”. This creation combines devotional songs from the 6,000-year-old Indian religion Jainism with progressive rock and jazz. Jain will be drawing from pieces by Rush, a Canadian progressive Rock trio he fell in love with when he was eight years old, and classics such as “You are My Sunshine.”
For this performance, Jain will be joined by Ganavya doing vocals, Grey Mcmurray playing guitar, and Shahzad Ismaily on the bass.
Concluding the residency, on February 9th, is “Dholusion,” a more diverse performance as Jain wants to evoke the sensation of hallucinations and tracendence by combining improv music with dance by Yamini Kalluri, a professional classical Indian Kuchipudi dancer. Kalluri went through the Martha Graham Dance School, which has influenced her art with a modern approach.
“The idea is to kind of start from tradition and to slowly just, open up and wander into a space of wonderment and psychedelics,” said Jain. “I’m thinking about the effects of my dhol and stuff I’m gonna do on my drum set that has triggers. I’m programming different sounds. I wanna explore a different kind of sonic territory that I’m not used to doing.”
The music for this performance will also come from Adam O’Farrill playing the trumpet and Eva Lawitts on bass.
“I want it all to focus on movement and to draw inspiration from all of us together in this moment,” he said. “It might get super weird. It might get super wild. I don’t really know what I imagine, but I want the audience’s brains to kind of melt or wonder what is happening through sonic textures.”
Jain will next perform in Brooklyn with his band Red Baraat on March 10 at the Brooklyn Bowl. This show will mark the 11th year of a multi-city annual festival “Red Baraat Festival of Colors”, an immersive celebration through music, visuals and dance comes together as what NPR has called “the best party band in years.”
Sunny Jain’s residency begins at Symphony Space on Saturday, Jan. 28 at 7:30pm, and continues on Feb. 4 and Feb. 9. Tickets and more information are available online.