Dholing Out the Jams: Red Baraat at Ann Arbor Summer Festival


Red Baraat

Red Baraat had Ann Arbor dancing (and applauding its soundchecks). Photo by Sairah Husain.

Red Baraat set Rackham outdoor stage ablaze on Saturday night. The eight-piece, Brooklyn-based band's melodious mix of Bhangra dhol beats and big-band brass had the approximately 300-person crowd at Ann Arbor Summer Festival’s Top of the Park throwing their hands up and shrugging their shoulders in high-energy Bhangra form.

For those unfamiliar with Bhangra, the dance moves are commonly described as being like a "light bulb twist." Though I cringe a bit at that cliche, Red Baraat leader Sunny Jain used this very description to encourage audience members to dance to his electrifying dhol drumming.

The show was slotted for 10:15 pm start, but soundcheck difficulties pushed the set back 20 minutes. But fans didn't seem to mind: "First time in Ann Arbor for @redbaraat and what a blast!" the band wrote on its Facebook page. "Never had a crowd cheer and clap along to each band member's mic check!"

The wait was well-worth it for me, too, because Red Baraat's set list features a myriad of songs from South Asian Sufi music to '90s Bollywood classics. The band set its sights high by covering one of qawwali legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s most famous tracks “Akhiyaan Udeek Diyan” as well as the renowned Sufi folk song “Dama Dam Mast Qalandar.”

Trumpeter and vocalist Sonny Singh along with dhol-wala and vocalist Jain encouraged the audience to sing along on "Dama Dam Mast Qalandar." A line toward the song’s end venerates Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali -- a much venerated figure in the Shia branch of Islam -- and requests his intercession in a prayer. The crowd ecstatically repeated “Naam-e-Ali!" -- "the name of Ali!" -- upon the vocalists’ encouragement. Being half Shia, I found the presumably majority non-Muslim crowd’s exclaiming Ali’s name simultaneously amusing and awe-inspiring.

Red Baraat

Red Baraat turned the stage into one big party. Photo by Sairah Husain.

The show was visually entertaining, too. In the middle of the concert, Jain selected three members of the crowd to come onstage and show their dance skills. But nine audience members ended up on in the dance-off and they all exhibited former-college-Bhangra-team-caliber moves. The stage was a party.

Next, Singh put a twist on the whimsical Bollywood classic "Mera Joota Hai Japani," changing the last word of the chorus to “inquilaabi" ("revolutionary”) rather than the nationality descriptor “Hindustani" ("Indian”):

Mera joota hai Japani,
Sar pe laal topi Rusi,
Ye patloon Inglistani
Phir bhi dil hai inquilaabi

My shoes are Japanese,
Upon my head is a red Russian hat,
These pants are English,
Still, my heart is revolutionary.

In replacing the Hindustani nationality with inquilaabi, Red Baraat purposefully resisted the artificial bounds of national borders. I found this take on the stanza creative, defiant, and appropriate for the band's mashup of musical styles.

Red Baraat also showcased Daler Mehndi's “Tunak Tunak Tun." A significant portion of the crowd seemed familiar with the hit and Bhangra-ed feverishly to the band’s catchy cover. But even folks unfamiliar with South Asian music may know the song thanks to the hilarious “Tunak Tunak Tun White Guys Dance” video on YouTube, which has racked up 3 million hits. (Of course, the original Daler Mehndi video is no less hilarious with the singer appearing in various space and castle landscapes dressed in playful Power Rangers-esque solid colors that complement each scene.)

Toward the end of its performance, Red Baraat covered “Mehndi Laga Ke Rakhna,” a '90s Bollywood hit from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ), one of the industry’s most popular and recognized films. DDLJ songs are a modern South Asian bride’s go-to for '90s wedding festivities nostalgia. The sheer power Red Baraat asserted during this song to hype up the crowd and keep them continuously dancing was extraordinary. But the audience didn't want the party to end, so the band was summoned back onstage for an encore by the crowd’s continuing applause.

Dubbed by NPR as “the best party band in years,” Red Baraat’s consummate performance had me in wholehearted agreement. Their music truly defies genre, and in that, I’d say they’re “inquilaabi.”

Sairah Husain is a desk clerk with the Ann Arbor District Library.