By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Most Americans seeing a turban-wearing Sikh, with a long beard, would not automatically assume such a man called Charlotte, N.C., his home, growing up.
But trumpeter Sonny Singh, performing with the Red Baraat band in Seattle on March 21, admits he got used to a lot of things, growing up Sikh in the South.
“My childhood was deeply shaped by being South Asian and being a Sikh,” he recalled. “My brother and I were the only two kids in the whole city who wore turbans, so there was a deep sense of isolation. Being bullied and harassed in school was a daily occurrence.
“But eventually, I took refuge in music. I started playing music in gurdwaras —Sikh houses of worship—playing harmonium and tabla and singing kirtan (Sikh devotional songs). At age 9, I started playing trumpet in school and never stopped!”
Religion, or at least formal religion, didn’t drive all of Singh’s musical zeal. He dove into Nirvana and Pearl Jam, mastering a decent Eddie Vedder impersonation. But he hit the ska revival of the 1990s hard—most ska bands used horns, so his trumpeting fit right in.
“The first thing I did in college was start a ska band called Turban Jones. I was really drawn to the 2-Tone movement and bands like the Specials and the Selecter in England, which put anti-racism at the center of its message and aesthetic. I’ve been an activist since I was a teenager, so these bands provided me with somewhat of a roadmap on how to combine music and activism.
“A little later, I got into bands like The Clash, Rage Against the Machine, and Ozomatli who were (and still are!) all super influential to an entire generation.”
The Red Baraat band, founded by drummer/songwriter Sunny Jain in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2008, uses North Indian Bhangra as its primary musical ingredient. Bhangra began as a folk form of Punjabi music, with dance. It’s gone around the world as a form of dance music electrified by musicians, and sometimes club DJs, who mix it with hip-hop and other forms of Western dance music.
Sonny Singh didn’t have to discover bhangra music.
“It was just the music that would be on when I’d go to family parties and weddings growing up. I was also shy about dancing as a kid, and I recall on multiple occasions my parents forcing me to participate in organized, choreographed bhangra dances for some community or cultural event. My mom would draw a fake mustache on me and dress me in super gaudy and bright outfits, and I would reluctantly go along with it.
“My shyness aside, the music has always been infectious and deeply intertwined with what it means to be Punjabi.”
Sunny Jain met Singh in the mid-2000s, and adding the trumpet player to Jain’s new project seemed like a perfect fit. The current Red Baraat band consists of Singh on trumpet and vocals, Jain on dhol (a double-headed drum) and vocals, Chris Eddleton on drums, John Altieri on sousaphone, Lynn Ligammari on soprano saxophone and vocals, and Nadav Nirermberg on trombone.
Future projects for the artists include a new solo album from Sunny Jain called “Wild Wild East,” out now. Singh’s first solo album, “Chardi Kala,” is scheduled for release later this year.
As for Red Baraat’s sound, Singh concluded, “It’s interesting to hear how different people hear different things. Sometimes Brazilians will come to us and say, ‘This sounds like samba.’ Or people will say, ‘This sounds like New Orleans second line music. We are drawing from a South Asian brass band tradition, but take a lot of liberties in our very NYC approach to it.
“I expect the band to have a bright future ahead, to continue touring, [and] continue to evolve our sound while sticking to the core dhol and brass foundation, making people around the world move and dance with joy.”
Andrew can be reached at email@example.com.