Attired in a canary-yellow shirt, sequined slacks and a pharaoh's headdress, Sunny Jain beat a brisk tattoo on his two-sided dhol drum. Beaded and bewigged residents of New Orleans' Tremé and French Quarter neighborhoods danced and shouted along to the ecstatic music of Jain's Brooklyn-based brass-and-drums band, Red Baraat, who made their Mardi Gras debut in February. As captured on YouTube, one boy does his best to keep up with the frenzied beat, crazy-legging and pumping his arms. He excitedly jumps in the air at the song's finish.
Red Baraat's blend of the Punjabi party music known as bhangra — which is spiked with funk, go-go, ska and hip-hop — has been inspiring similar reactions everywhere they go. In January, their second album, "Shruggy Ji," debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's World Music Chart and reached the top of iTunes' World Music Chart, as well. That same month, they were invited to play the Indiaspora Inaugural Ball in Washington, D.C., as part of Barack Obama's reelection celebrations. (They'll perform Saturday at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center in Cutler Bay.)
But just as exciting for Jain was the opportunity to play Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Red Baraat not only paraded through storied Crescent City streets, but they also played Tipitina's with local faves Galactic, and threw down in "battle" with the Mardi Gras Indian Orchestra at the Hi-Ho Lounge.
"As a jazz musician, you check out New Orleans music," says Jain, 37. "But I wasn't necessarily checking out the brass-music culture that's happening now with the Soul Rebels or Rebirth [Brass Band]. I'd never really checked them out till people started labeling Red Baraat as New Orleans brass. Obviously, there's a very clear relationship. Those Punjabi rhythms, and New Orleans rhythms based off the clave, we're very much in the same pocket."
The son of Punjabi immigrants, Jain heard plenty of South Asian music while growing up in Rochester, N.Y. Studying drums from age 10, he eventually gravitated toward jazz, especially in his teens. Pursuing jazz degrees at Rutgers and then New York University, Jain fused these worlds in his music. Along with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and guitarist Rez Abbasi, Jain is among a generation of South Asians who unself-consciously wed elements of their ethnicity with sophisticated modern jazz.
While visiting an uncle in New Delhi one summer, Jain saw a traditional Indian folk band and determined to learn to play the dhol. The barrel-shaped drum, which is played with a straight and a curved stick, set the course for Jain's career, as he sought to bring his music outside the cloistered jazz world. And Red Baraat has been the vehicle to do just that. As frontman, Jain whips audiences — and his bandmates — into a frenzy.
"We started seeing audiences dancing and having a great time, and that fed what we were doing," Jain says. "It really was reciprocal. There are certain sections of the song where we're jumping up and down or dancing around. It started from a place where we just love playing, and if people are enjoying that, then we're feeding off of them."
With the Spam Allstars
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, March 23
Where: South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, 10950 SW 11th St., Cutler Bay
Contact: 786-573-5300 or Smdcac.org