Hey, MD readers! I’m Sunny Jain, founder and dhol drummer for Red Baraat, an eight-piece Brooklyn-based Bhangra party band with five horn players and three drummers—drumset, percussion, and myself.
For those not familiar, the dhol is a barrel-shaped drum carved from a single section of a tree trunk, often a mango tree, but it’s also common to use teak or mahogany. Both sides of the drum are traditionally covered with goatskin, but nowadays the high side has a synthetic head. I use a Remo Renaissance Emperor snare batter on mine. You play the dhol with two sticks—you hit the high side with a thin bamboo stick, called a tilhi, to get some retroflex motion, and the bass side is struck with a thick, curved stick called a dagga. The dhol came to the Indian subcontinent back in the 15th century from Persia, and although used throughout the country, the dhol is most popularly found in Bhangra and Sufi music.
As an Indian-American born and raised in upstate New York, I grew up listening to both Indian music (Bhangra, Bollywood, devotional songs, Hindustani classical) and Western music (classic and progressive rock, Top 40). When I started learning drumkit at age twelve, my teacher turned me onto bebop, and I fell in love with the rhythmic propulsion and complexities of jazz. I went to college for music and have played jazz drums professionally with Rez Abbasi, Kenny Barron, Seamus Blake, Marc Cary, Kyle Eastwood, Norah Jones, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Donny McCaslin, and many others. I studied tabla on and off for the past several years and came to the dhol in 2003. A different person was unlocked in me when I would play this instrument, and I became enveloped with its sound and power. I’m also a composer, and for as long as I’ve written I’ve tried to reflect my experience and identity as an Indian-American.
Four years ago, I put together Red Baraat, and in January 2013 we released our second studio album, Shruggy Ji. The foundation and signature sound of the band is the dhol drum. It separates us from just being another brass band. In addition, our songs and melodies are pointing to India, but with a Brooklyn sensibility—hip-hop, jazz, spontaneity, and grit.
The nuance of the North Indian rhythms found in Red Baraat’s music is about finding that fold between straight and triplet feels. There are a variety of traditional rhythms that I’m playing, such as Chaal, Sialkoti Bhangra, Dhammal, Keherwa, that the drummer, Tomas Fujiwara, and percussionist, Rohin Khemani, intertwine with, either through accenting certain beats or playing complementing rhythms. Sometimes Tomas will replicate my dhol rhythm on the drumset, while Rohin creates density by filling in the subdivisions and accenting the necessary beats. The new album also has some house beats that work very well with the dhammal rhythm, and the title track, “Shruggy Ji,” has a straight-up go-go rhythm.
Photo by Markku Aberg