Red Baraat’s ‘Shruggy Ji’ was recently the number one world music album in the US. The genre has long irked me as a lazy way to group together everything that doesn’t quite fit within our popular understanding of ordinary music – everything that isn’t obviously pop, rock, RnB, dance or hip-hop. But as the musical membranes between nations become thinner and thinner and gradually the space between them becomes ever more marginal and the shared collective experience of the world increases as the Internet and its capacities infiltrate every aspect of our lives, ‘world music’ is inevitably becoming less ‘world’ and more ‘music’ proper. The term has historically been used as a bit of a distancer, a way to describe to potential listeners that these are not ordinary tunes for your consumption. As that intermingling between genres, artists and nations continues unabated, I can foresee ‘world music’ no longer being two words made dirtier for being side by side but rather, ones that indicate a keen awareness of our interconnectedness and ones that celebrate that intense level of association at a fundamental level.
In this way, it was useful coming to ‘Shruggy Ji’ without much understanding about who or what Red Baraat were. For the first few spins, the deceptive interface on my phone had me thinking that Shruggy Ji was the artist and ‘Red Baraat’ the single’s name. Shruggy Ji, I thought to myself, is a kind of funky name for an emcee from the fringes of rap, someone who, by virtue of his musical choices, doesn’t quite fit into the synth or sample-heavy regimes that the rest of the rap world subscribes to. Nevertheless, ‘Shruggy Ji’ is in fact the song’s name and Red Baraat, an eight-piece from Brooklyn founded by dhol (double headed drum) player and emcee Sunny Jain, is the fascinating group behind it. The dominant sound on this track – bhangra, the North Indian and Pakistani Punjabi riffs – has been infused with so much besides that it’s hard to know where the South East Asian influence ends and the jazz, funk and hip-hop stylistic cues begin. What is so intriguing about Red Baraat is that there is no strict demarcation between these influences but rather, the band offers up an integrated, intricate wall of sound onto which they climb before collapsing in a heap on top of each other, heaving and jiving at the fun they’ve had.
And fun, determinedly, is at the heart of all things Red Baraat. The group is a regular on the festival circuit and, alongside gigs like Bonnaroo, has played the London Paralympics closing ceremony and the White House. The result of an intense touring schedule – they play something in the order of 200 shows a year – really makes itself heard on the group’s sophomore album from which ‘Shruggy Ji’ comes (and which goes by the same name). Getting big-band-style cogs oiled and in working order on stage is a harder feat still than making sure the machine works in the recording studio but the guys are clearly seasoned live professionals and so this charisma, and an impressive level of comfort, is audible on record, too. In many ways, Red Baraat reminds me of Melbourne’s The Cat Empire who successfully blend ska, jazz and Latin influences both onstage and off. To be able to really pull off a sound as thick and powerful and coherent as this, the Red Baraat guys must be members of the same serious aptitude club as the Cat Empire players. Bhangra is a style that, beyond Jay-Z’s attempts to prostitute it, deserves ambassadors like these. ‘Shruggy Ji’ is triumphant, fresh and intriguing. At the Model UN of world music, Red Baraat would be calling the shots.
Red Baraat – Shruggy Ji