Sunny Jain

The beating heart of the vibrant and varied career of Sunny Jain is a celebration of cultural diaspora: deep-rooted tradition that ripples outward, changing – and being changed by – the cultures that it touches. Whether dazzling an audience with his propulsive dhol mastery or anchoring a modern jazz band with his creative drumming; as a savvy entrepreneur navigating the seismic shifts of the modern music business or setting pen to paper to craft innovative compositions; in whatever role he takes on, Jain embodies the all-embracing spirit of globalized artistry.

Called the “Hendrix of dhol” by Manchester Salon (UK), Jain deftly blends the modern and the traditional, the personal and the communal, the inventive and the festive. Nowhere is that exemplified as vividly as in Red Baraat, the frenzied fusion of bhangra, hip-hop, jazz, rock, and sheer, unbridled energy that he founded in 2008 and that NPR has called “the best party band in years.” Red Baraat started as just that – a party band, devised for Jain’s own wedding day – but quickly evolved, first to become the hottest ticket in Brooklyn then to raise pulse rates at the White House, TED Talks, the Bonnaroo Music Festival, Austin City Limits, Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD Festivals, and the closing ceremonies of the London Paralympic Games.

That success also uncovered a need among South Asian Americans for live entertainment that honored their traditions in ways appropriate for a melting pot culture. Where Red Baraat took the tradition of the baraat – the groom’s wedding day procession – into packed nightclubs and onto festival stages, the bandleader founded Jainsounds to offer high-quality live music for events and functions. The boutique artist-booking agency’s roster includes the Jina Brass Band, a more traditional example of the baraat ensemble, as well as the Bollywood Jazz Ensemble, Hindustani classical musicians and Indian vocalists.

Growing up in Rochester, New York, Jain banged his head to Van Halen and Rush while being captivated by the devotional songs and classic Bollywood soundtracks his parents brought from their native India. Studying jazz, he drew inspiration from giants like Elvin Jones and Max Roach. He went on to work with the likes of Norah Jones, Marc Cary, Kyle Eastwood and Kenny Wollesen on the thriving NYC jazz scene while forging his own pioneering path melding jazz and South Asian music. Through his Taboo project, Jain directly confronted social justice issues facing the South Asian community, drawing inspiration from ghazals, ancient love poems, to address sensitive modern problems like sexual identity, domestic violence, and religious acceptance.

In the Sunny Jain Collective, the drummer/bandleader explored the ways that Indian classical music and other music could transform his jazz influences enlisting like-minded exploratory artists including Pakistani-American guitarist Rez Abbasi and Indian-American vocalist Samita Sinha. He also teamed with Sinha as well as guitarist Grey Mcmurray in the trio Tongues in Trees, which melded ethereal indie-pop with driving Indian rhythms. With the Pakistani singer/musician/writer Ali Sethi, Jain created Resident Alien, an uncategorizable ensemble focused on exploring the timely idea of migration.

Wielding the shoulder-slung, double-headed dhol, meanwhile, he brought together all of those influences with the cacophony of sounds flowing together in the streets of New York City to create Red Baraat, while bringing the instrument to new audiences via the Broadway stage (in Bombay Dreams, the first ever Indian Broadway show), the TV set (his song “Chaal Baby” was featured on the hit FX series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), or the silver screen (appearing in the Uma Thurman/Colin Firth film The Accidental Husband).

Jain has also shared his experiences through speaking engagements, which have brought him to the White House AAPI conference, Harvard University, New York University, Chamber Music America and the New Haven Festival of Arts and Ideas, helping to spread his pluralistic message through cerebral as well as visceral means. That’s also the philosophy that underpins his work with Jainsounds, which turned a personal desire to connect with his own roots into a thriving business bringing longstanding traditions to South Asian Americans in ways that embrace the rich hybridity of evolving cultures.

The communal nature of Jain’s music includes not only creating an environment for audiences to work up a sweat but also a wide-ranging variety of rich collaborations with artists from other genres and disciplines. He spent several years touring the world on drumset with the wildly successful Sufi rock band Junoon, recording the acclaimed single “Open Your Eyes” with Peter Gabriel to raise awareness for Pakistani flood victims and performing at the United Nations and at the Nobel Peace Prize concert in Oslo for Nobel Laureates Al Gore and Rajendra Paucharia. He’s also joined forces with rapper Himanshu Suri of Swet Shop Boys and Das Racist, rhythmist Karsh Kale, pianist/composer Vijay Iyer, saxophonist Donny McCaslin, producer Andres Levin and NYC bhangra pioneer, DJ Rekha, among countless others.

“Communal” can only begin to describe “100+ BPM,” the massive composition that NPR Music commissioned Jain to write for “Make Music New York” day in 2014. The piece convened more than 350 musicians on the steps of the Brooklyn Public Library, including the drumlines of the New York Jets and Knicks, prominent brass bands from across the city, and a number of talented high school band students. Jain has also received composition and performance grants from the Aaron Copland Music Fund, Chamber Music America, Meet the Composer, Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, globalFEST Touring Fund, MASS MoCA, and more. Signal to Noise declared, “Jain’s unique compositions stake out singular turf in this 21st Century world of cross-pollinating musical traditions.”

It’s absolutely fitting that one of the highlights of the Red Baraat calendar has become its annual Festival of Colors tour – a celebration of the Hindu holiday of Holi, which famously involves the jubilant exchange of colors among rainbow-hued revelers. In these celebratory events, he’s brought together not just the varied hues of his own influences, but curated a dizzying array of artists as he’s built the festival to a ten-city bacchanal. Jain’s own career can be viewed as a similar mélange of colors, each bold on its own but commingling to form a stunning panorama.