Brooklyn-based jazz drummer Sunny Jain dives deep into what it means to be an immigrant, a first-generation American of South Asian descent, and a member of the global community of marginalized people, in Wild Wild East. It’s as wild a mashup of genres and styles as I’ve encountered in 30 years of reviewing music, and one of the most engaging and exciting releases of this young decade.
Which is to say, this isn’t a “world music” mashup for its own sake. There’s a method and a meaning to Jain’s madness, one which is amply explained in the 42-page booklet that comes with the CD. I’ll try to summarize.
Jain’s parents emigrated from Punjab to America, continuing a family history of movement in search of safety and a better life. His ancestors fled their home village of Osian in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan, and then to Pakistan during the violent upheaval of Partition in 1947-48. Then they moved to America, settling in Rochester, NY, where he was born and grew up in the 1970s and ’80s. And experienced all of the mixed signals of a first-generation American, especially a person of color with a religion, language and culture that seem exotic to most “white” Americans.
On Wild Wild East he’s examining the themes, imagery and mythology of the American West, and comparing the spirit and experiences of the immigrant with the myth of the cowboy. As he says in the liner notes: “The idea of the American cowboy is this romanticized idea that’s just false. The immigrant is the current-day cowboy or cowgirl.” Of the album’s concept, he says, “The idea was to address the cowboy mentality that we people of color — whether you’re red, brown, or black — face. The cowboy is this sheriff that you witness throughout American history, from the Wild West to the cops today, but if I were the native, if I were the African American, it’s like, ‘This cowboy is coming to shoot me down.’ This is not romantic to me at all.”
Thus the wild mixing of psychedelic rock, surf rock and hip-hop with Bollywood, bhangra, Jain religious songs and other musical styles of South Asia. The album opens with the cinematic “Immigrant Warrior,” blending Spaghetti Western tropes with Eastern motifs and some fiery jazz, particularly from tenor saxophonist Pawan Benjamin. Hot on its heels comes the title track, a thundering homage to immigrants, with the New York based singer Ganavya on vocals.
“I love my country but they treat us like Isis,” says Muslim rapper Haseeb, New York-born but of South Asian descent, on “Red, Brown, and Black.” The ensemble goes full Bollywood on “Bhaagi,” a stirring ode to an Indian-American rebel executed by the British in 1915, with Aditya Prakash on vocals, backed by Benjamin on a strident sax riff with Dave Smoota Smith on trombone joining Kenny Bentley on sousaphone and Jain on clattering percussion and drums.
The galloping surf guitar fest “Aye Mere Dil Kahin Aur Chal” is a 1952 Hindi film song played here in the manner of a Morricone soundtrack, propelled by Jain’s dhol, the Punjabi drum. This song has some personal history for Jain: during his childhood his father regularly played the tune on his bulbul tarang, a Punjabi folk lute, and here it is introduced by a brief 30-second solo on that very instrument by guitarist McMurray.
Some of the most moving and effective songs here are less frenetic. One of my favorites is “Osian,” named for Jain’s ancestral hometown in Rajasthan, which combines, as the liner notes put it, “folk drone with Sonic Youth-style post-punk noise rock.” Benjamin plays the shehnai, an Indian version of the shawm with double reed and flared bell, and Jain’s rhythm alternates between jazz and Punjabi style, moving from emphasizing the downbeat to the offbeat. There’s a great section with a duet on the melody between the shehnai and Grey McMurray on electric guitar – the whole thing is a trancey dronefest!
The lovely warm tone of the Indian bansuri bamboo flute is a highlight of the atmospheric arrangement of “Tumse Lagi Lagan,” an instrumental version of a Jain religious song, as well as on “Blackwell,” an ode to Jain’s childhood home in Rochester, which also features Alam Khan on sarod. And Ganavya sings lyrics of transparent longing and passion on “Hai Apna Dil to Aawara,” a Bollywood love song that Jain’s father sang to his mother in Rochester – done here as a country waltz with strummed acoustic and twanging electric guitars and Jain on the trap set. “My heart is a vagabond,” go the lyrics. “He is a madman. He is a shooting star. Who knows upon whom he will land.”
The album ends with a delicious one-two punch. The penultimate track is “Maitri Bhavanu,” drawn from a Jain prayer and arranged as a dramatic Punjabi song of unresolved tension. Ganavya vocalizes airily over multi-level droning of guitar, cymbals and toms. She sings lyrics calling for a transcendant ethics of compassion and connection as the song crescendoes briefly to a passionate, shattering height of wailing guitars and vocals and shimmering cymbals before returning to the earlier airiness of before. Finally comes the shattering dancehall rocker “Brooklyn Dhamal,” a multi-cultural stew of influences from Punjabi to punk to Dick Dale and Morricone, house beats and Afro-Cuban clave and especially a post-punk wall of noise.
Wild Wild East is the first release in the Smithsonian Folkways’ Asian Pacific America series. I can’t imagine a better way to introduce such a project than with Sunny Jain, exploring the interconnectedness of global styles and the arbitrariness of borders, and finding in the histories of America’s marginalized peoples – African American, Native, immigrants of various ethnicities – parallels with the stories of his own immigrant parents and ancestors. This is an important record, but it’s also a great one. Check out this behind-the-scenes mini-doc on the album.
(Smithsonian Folkways, 2020)