Culture Vulture: Night (And Free Day) at the Museum, Part II

Red Barraat's Sunny Jain
Red Barraat's Sunny Jain

Part II: The Vulture gets fed (but not fed up), and then parties down with RED BARAAT!

If you watch Food Channel, you know culture extends to food. When it comes to MASS MoCA, that means Gramercy Bistro, which sits across the courtyard from the museum itself. Don’t let the prices scare you off: You’d be looking at the same numbers if you went to Albany’s New World Bistro Bar, although the vibe’s not as Downtown as New World – muted colors on the walls, abstract art hanging on those walls, and Art Blakey bubbling on the sound system.

Don’t be afraid of names like “sesame tuna” and “coq au vin,” either, because the first is a fish that literally melts in your mouth, while the second makes you question your mom’s stern warning that it’s not nice to lick your plate clean in “a nice place.” We’re talking poetry applied to cooking… or maybe it’s the other way round. It’s hard to make sense when your taste buds are having an orgasm. Like New World, the chefs at Gramercy Bistro turn foodstuffs into sheer ecstasy.

I’d asked for the check when we ordered dessert (Chai cheesecake for me, blood orange crème brulee for my partner), but the waitress assured us, “Everybody’s going to the show.” We discovered that was true when we reached the Hunter Center, the spacious indoor concert venue that had hosted Solid Sound’s day-long comedy festival last August. The stacks of bleachers you’d usually find had disappeared, replaced by round tables arranged around the walls, and almost every table was claimed by the time we made the scene. There was seating (of a kind) under the four small pavilions that had been set up at every corner of the dance floor, all of which were connected to the Hunter’s ornate chandelier by streams of ephemeral orange fabric that was strung from the tents to the light bars. But pillows aren’t our speed, so we commandeered two seats by a table that was only guarded by someone’s backpack. Thankfully, it didn’t put up a fight.

MASS MoCA throws a dance party or two every year, but that doesn’t mean it’s just a “dance concert.” There’s a cultural theme to the event, and that theme comes attached with a dance instructor who’s schooled in the genre you’re about to be exposed to. In this case, we had Gobind Singh, a BU graduate who teaches Bhangra dancing at New York City’s Sounds of Brazil nightclub. He was everything you’d want in an instructor: Knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and he made the subject fun… not that anyone on the multi-colored dance floor didn’t know Bollywood films are the most fun you can legally have with a DVD player. Half an hour later, Singh had most of the 500-plus people working basic Bollywood moves, totally psyched for what Red Baraat was ready to lay down.

Horns, horns, horns
Horns, horns, horns
Nippertown’s lead-up piece featured a photograph of Sonny Singh, the turbaned trumpeter/vocalist who’s definitely a major energy point of Red Baarat. (FYI: “Baraat” means “procession,” while red is the color of love). But the leader of the nine-piece juggernaut is Sunny Jain, a miniature powerhouse who plays the dhol – a double-ended, barrel-shaped North Indian drum that hung from a strap around his neck. His passion and prowess wasn’t a surprise to me; what was a surprise was Jain himself, who’d made one of the most important discs of 2010: “Taboo” on the Brooklyn Jazz Underground label, a burning jazz-fusion/Carnatic indictment of the “See no evil” attitude the South Asian community takes to sexual identity, violence against women, and child prostitution.

But none of that was on the menu this evening, which Jain made perfectly clear during his introduction to “Freedom.” “We’re not talking about Egypt,” he asserted. “We’re not talking about Tunisia! We’re not talking about the Sudan!” No, the message of “Freedom” – and of Red Baraat’s music as a whole – was the freedom to be yourself, let yourself go, and celebrate the joy that’s in you. That’s the way it was from the opening notes of “I’m Coming to Take You,” and it stayed that way right through the blaring, 90-minute set that kept the dance floor filled all the way through.

Red Baarat isn’t a band as much as they’re a physical force. How Proctors is still standing after this group played there back in November is a mystery to me. We’re talking the Rebirth Brass Band straight outta Bombay, and the ferocious horn section includes MiWi La Lupa (aka Mike Williams), the outstanding bass trumpeter who played with Charlie Hunter at the Van Dyck last October. The beat is a mash-up of second line and hip-hop (the latter accented by Sousaphone player John Altieri’s searing rap breaks), and the sheer elation inherent in the music makes sure the smile never leaves your face. Although the dancers returned to more Western forms as the show went on, their enthusiasm never waned, and it was the same on the stage from start to finish.

It’s ski season, which meant the hotels were packed, so we wound our way back down Route 2, mindful of deer and black ice. Even so, falling asleep at the wheel wasn’t even a remote possibility.

Story and photographs by J Hunter

J Hunter’s Culture Vulture: Night (And Free Day) at the Museum, Part I
Rudy Lu’s concert review and photographs of Red Baraat at Proctors, 11/13/10
J Hunter’s CD review of Sunny Jain’s “Taboo” at State of Mind

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