In December 2015, after the deadly Paris and Lebanon terror attacks, Penn Masala — the Pennsylvania, USA-based, Hindi a capella band (the first in the world) — posted a solidarity message in memory of the victims and their families on Facebook.
The band, known for its unique a capella sound, combined two songs with a powerful message of hope: John Lennon’s Imagine (1971), and Humko Man ki Shakti Dena, from Guddi (1971).
The video got 1 million views overnight. The comments to the video, while all in support of the band’s stand against violence, also express surprise: “I had never noticed how similar the compositions are. Now I can’t listen to either of the songs in isolation,” reads a comment.
“We get such comments all the time. Our fans also give us recommendations of Hindi and English songs we can mix,” says Pranay Sharma, a Penn Masala band member.
Formed in 1996, the band pioneered the concept of merging Hindi songs with complementary English chartbusters. They have now paved the way for a slew of artists — Vidya Vox, Arjun Kanungo, Gaurav Dagaonkar — who make a mark on social media using the same concept.
Ode to the motherland
Apart from Penn Masala, one of the first names that surfaces when you type ‘mash-up artists’ on YouTube is Mumbai-based Shankar Tucker. His channel, Shruti Box, was one of the first mash-up campaigns (in 2011) that took social media by storm, with more than 1,20,000 subscribers. As part of the project, Tucker has been has been encouraging a number of independent artists who follow the mash-up format.
Case in point, Virginia-based Vidya Iyer (stage name Vidya Vox). Iyer met Tucker in Mumbai, in 2015, during a visit to India and kick-started her solo career in April last year. Interestingly, it was an identity crisis she grappled with during her childhood that inspired her to compose mash-up tracks. Music helped ease some of the confusion.
“Growing up in Virginia, I was surrounded by two different cultures. I searched for ways to marry the two worlds together. I have been training in classical Carnatic music since I was five years old, and grew up listening to the likes of Beyoncé and Coldplay. With Shankar’s help, I learnt how to hold on to my roots and culture through music” says Iyer.
Iyer’s vocal prowess is remarkable. So much so that her mash-up of Taylor Swift’s Blank Space (2015) and AR Rahman’s Mental Manadhil (from Mani Ratnam’s O Kadhal Kanmani; 2015), has recorded over 28,23,950 views. It is also one of the top six options that appear on YouTube when you search for Swift’s original song.
However, mash-ups don’t stop at vocal renditions. Florida-born Aakash Gandhi does instrumental versions. He now produces acoustic mash-up tracks on his eponymous YouTube channel.
“Ever since I was young, playing some of Kishore Kumar’s classics made me feel Indian at heart. I was more than just an NRI,” says Gandhi. His latest track, a mash-up of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean and Rahman’s Jiya Re has hit over 2,48,201 views since February, 2016.
Not so terrible twos
But how does one select complementary songs from the large bank of existing global music? For Gandhi, the process is instinctive: “I work on combinations till they sound like a complete product. Then I finalise the lyrics to include in the final cut.”
However, since the tracks often belong to two completely different musical worlds, compositions can get tricky, as both songs need to have similar tempo and rhythm. “If they don’t match, it ruins the songs. I was once trying to find a song to fit Nicki Minaj’s Hey Mama. But nothing worked out. Sometimes, you can’t help it,” says Iyer.
Do they make Money?
Despite their growing fame, the primary platform for showcasing their talent remains YouTube. And since YouTube brings in free-of-cost viewership, these artists have different methods of financing themselves. Gandhi provides online tutorials on his website (88keystoeuphoria.com) for a subscription fee. Penn Masala still follows their original strategy: sales of their songs on iTunes and Spotify.
Iyer, on the other hand, relies entirely on live performances across America. “The money I earn from a live show is divided into two parts. One section goes towards producing my music videos, and the other goes into my savings,” she says.
It’s no wonder then that Iyer has about 20 high quality videos on her channel, with each hitting an average of a million views. “Visuals are important, as listeners like to ‘see’ the song. My friend does the videography, and we do the editing together. It’s just a two-person team,” she says.
And despite the rather laborious process to put their content out there, and the uncertainty of monetary gains, the fact that they feel closer to the Indian culture means more to them than we can imagine here.
In fact, for Penn Masala, the recognition they have received for inter-cultural exchange is more valuable than the number of likes. “We performed at President Obama’s first Diwali in office in 2009. It was a celebration of what it means to be Indian-American,” said Sharma in a previous interview to HT48Hours.
Penn Masala will perform in Mumbai on May 21, at 9pm
Where: Farzi Café, Kamala Mills Compound, Lower Parel
Call: 84339 42801
Tickets available on pennmasala.com