Jazz as a musical commodity is nearly dead. Of all music sold in the United States in 2014, jazz accounted for a paper-thin 1.4% of the pie. For every critic that loves jazz there seem to be many more who absolutely revile it and rant angrily about its shortcomings on the internet. Once upon a time jazz was the exciting sound of hope, joy and possibility. It was America’s greatest gift to the world. Nowadays, jazz is dissed for being backward-looking, trapped within its own formal structures – and just boring.
As Sunday Sounds has noted in previous columns, one of the truly exciting silver linings in the dark jazz cloud is a growing cohort of South Asians who are bringing in the sounds and sensibilities of Carnatic and Hindustani music to the genre. Old instruments are being played in new ways and jazz lovers are becoming more familiar with Hindi, Sanskrit and Urdu song titles or lyrical phrases.
Sunny Jain, a drummer, composer and energetic performer, is one of the more exciting members of this New Wave of desi jazz. With his flamboyant stage presence and bhangra influences, Sunny has become over the past dozen or so years an accomplished and much-lauded band leader. His current outfit, Red Baraat, tours tirelessly, sharing its loud, raucous and infectious brass band sound all across North America and Europe. Jain, always up front with a big dhol strapped across his shoulders, beats out a massive rhythm that drives audiences wild.
Scroll.in was privileged to steal a bit of time from Jain’s hectic schedule for a chat about his musical journey.
What brought your family to the States and what part of India does your family call home?
I am a Punjabi Jain. A bit of an anomaly, I know. My folks were from Sialkot originally. After Partition, my mother moved to East Punjab and my dad to Rajasthan. But eventually they settled in Delhi and then came to Rochester, New York in 1970, where I was born. My father is a biochemist and research scientist.
Was there a musical streak in the family?
I suppose you could say, my parents were musical – in a sense. We had a very Jain background. There are a number of maharaj-ji’s on my dad’s side. He himself was a founder of Jain Society in Rochester and was very involved in the community. Singing bhajans is a big part of our life. And that was mixed with 60s-70s Hindi film songs. Though he wasn’t an accomplished player he had an Indian banjo and harmonium that we used to jam out to when I was young.
What place does Jainism have in your life?
Jainism is a culturally strong part of my background and life. It means living and ‘being’ a certain way. But I don’t necessarily practice it as a religion. I’m not interested in those aspects.
Do you speak any south Asian languages?
I grew up hearing Punjabi/Hindi but my command of it gets worse every year. Being the youngest of three I became less fluent than my siblings. Our house was filled with a mix of Hindi, Punjabi and English but to be honest I can’t really tell the difference between Punjabi and Hindi.
What drew you to music? Was there a particular person, or album, or incident that stands out?
It was a little bit of all of those things. My older brother is a guitarist and violinist. I’d sneak into his room and go through his vinyl [collection], looking for good covers! Styx, Rush, Stevie Wonder, Van Halen, Tchaikovsky. I listened to it all. I learned from him, though I’d always rush out of his room before he could catch me. I was a novice and knew nothing. Sort of a blank paper. The sound of the tabla was important to me. I’d play the tabla on the table. Rhythm and sound just spoke to me.
What took you towards jazz?
Having a good teacher was so important. Rich Thompson taught me from age 10-18 and is still my mentor. When I started I hoped he would teach me how to play like Rush! But he insisted that first I learn bossa nova and different jazz rhythms. He introduced me to Philly Joe Jones with the idea I’d join the school’s jazz ensemble. By the time I was 14 or 15, I began to really appreciate phrasing and the rhythmic elements of the drums. I remember listening to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue for a few weeks and not getting it. It took me a while to understand the emotional depth of the music and Coltrane too. But once I got it , I was floored!
Your song Sialkot [Avaaz] incorporates a Faiz Ahmed Faiz poem which is often interpreted as a critique of the Partition or at least the disillusionment over what transpired after the Partition. Is there a political message in your music?
My family was from Sialkot. Faiz’s poem speaks to what my family went through. My father told me about trains and the killings. My father was 7 and saw his cousin killed next to him. He was almost left behind by his mother because he wanted to stay with friends. Though he rarely talked about this, it had a big influence on me. And of course Partition was a huge influence on millions of people. This song is not a political statement. It’s an emotional one. I’ve used my heritage in my music to make up for my perceived shortcomings; of not being able to speak Hindi, for example. I speak music to connect me and bridge the gap.
You have also played with Junoon, Pakistan’s iconic band. How did that collaboration come about and is your association with Junoon ongoing?
I was introduced to their music in the late 90s in Delhi by a cousin. I liked them and then years later I got a call from my tabla master Samir Chatterjee, saying “Junoon is looking for a drummer for a Canadian tour.”I was so was excited to play with them. But the original band had split, so this was a new lineup. Samir Chatterjee (tabla), John Alec (bass), myself, and of course Salman Ahmad on guitar. We played for six years on and off. We stay in touch but nothing formal.
To what extent is being identified as a South Asian-American important to your music?
Identities are multiple. I’m South Asian, Indian, Jain, vegetarian, and a drummer. All of these are important. Early on it was important to bridge a gap that allowed me to communicate with my heritage. But it is not essential that I put out South Asian inflected music. But this heritage is so deeply embedded in who I am – it can’t be hid. You know I’m a Jain from my name. You know I’m brown, so must be South Asian. There is bigotry all over the world these days. And as a person of colour you are looked at in certain way. I don’t get defensive about that – but it is always present.
You are one of an amazing group of jazz musicians with South Asian origins. Why do you think there is such a strong domination or presence of South Asians at this particular moment?
I would say it’s a natural outcome of America’s 1960s immigration policy! The second generation is now branching into all sorts of things. As a kid I never knew of anyone doing music. Vijay Iyer and I are both from Rochester. But I didn’t know anything about him until much later. He was the first Indian I met who played jazz. We all are definitely connected. I play with Vijay and Rez Abbasi and Rudresh Mahantappa. We all play together in different combos. We are in touch. And there are a lot of great new ones coming up too, people like Rafiq Bhatti and Samir Gupta. It is exciting.
What is it about the dhol that you love? It has to be one of the most unusual and unlikely lead instruments in jazz.
One word. Liberation! The dhol liberates me on stage. I’m not stuck on the drummer’s stool in the back. I can wear it and move around. It’s liberating in its sound which is glorious and huge. The dhol shocks you into attention! All aspects of the instrument are liberating. I came to it while buying tablas in India. I bought a dholki and had a bit of extra cash so bought a dhol. I learned it from Dev Sharma, a student of Samir Chatterjee’s. I then started listening to old records and YouTube. You can’t find a teacher in the States. The tradition of Hindustani classical music is rather elitist. They don’t like the dhol. They think of it as low life, belonging to the village, a folk instrument. So I’m also liberating the dhol by profiling it so prominently!
You seem to be constantly touring with Red Baarat. Where did the name come from?
Red is my favourite colour. But it symbolises so much. Energy, Revolution, love and rebellion. But basically it is because red is my favourite colour!
There is a such joy and enthusiasm in the band’s music. A very positive energy. You’ve also stood out from the crowd for your regular support to "good/humanitarian" causes, such as the floods in Pakistan and Jyothi Singh Pandey. Is it important to you that music needs to have a larger mission or goal – social change, for instance and not just music for music's sake?
It’s hard to pinpoint where this humanitarian feeling comes from but it is important. Everyone is a citizen of the world. Everyone needs to be interested in others. We need to understand ourselves but also our capacity to help others. We can get so self absorbed and forget the marginalised of society. There are so many tragic things and oppressive things all the time. Here in the States, 11 States are suing the federal government for its transgender rights legislation. You have to pay attention to these sorts of things. You can’t separate music and art from the rest of life.
Do you support these causes as Sunny Jain or as a representative of Red Baraat?
It is both. Others like Sunny Singh, our trumpet player, are also very engaged in social issues. Our band is very diverse. We all bring very different perspectives to our music. This diversity looks interesting and sounds interesting.
It seems Red Baarat has been a hit from day one. Has it surprised you? How do you account for that?
The brass band is a universal thing. Its not just bhangra or jazz. It’s hard to pinpoint what it is. Our music allows people to latch on to something. You hear different things in it. In New Orleans our audiences connect with the brass band tradition of that city. In other places it is jazz. In others it is the Indian wedding band. Brass band music is a music that everyone can relate to. We don’t want to sound like something specific. We don’t try to have one particular sound.
Is this composed music or all improvised?
There are definitely charts. The music is composed and things get arranged. But we move it around and include lots of room for personality and improvisation. It is exciting for audiences. We sort of go into unchartered territory and don’t know where we’ll come out. Audiences like that. But we do have a basic composed framework. I am the main composer.
You studied this?
Yes. I did a jazz performance degree and so studied composing and arranging.
You are active in promoting South Asian sounds through various platforms.
Yes. I’m really proud of two in particular. I’m the leading light behind the Red Baraat Brooklyn Mela which showcases a lot of established as well as up and coming South Asian acts, like Karsh Kale, DJ Rekha, Bhim Bhiman and Shilpa Ray. This is coming up on July 7 at the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn. Then next year we are planning another Festival of Colours to mark Holi. This year we had the festival in Washington, Seattle and New York and Boston and sold out three of the cities!
Any plans to tour India?
I’d love to but our plans always seem not to work out. We were lined up for a tour of Pakistan with the State Department but then the government was shut down and everything went down the gurgler. But India is definitely on the cards.
Finally, Trump, Hilary or Bernie?
I think it will be Hilary, sadly. This country needs a lot of help, some thinking outside of the box. The fact that Trump has come so far shows we need help. I don’t see Bernie winning but there is a small awakening happening. The younger generation will have a bigger say next time round.
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