In March 2014, a five-minute video went viral on YouTube. It got more than a million views under a week, and was quite the talk of social media platforms. The video captured the evolution of Bollywood music over a century and included songs from films like Dulari (1949) and Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayi (1960) to Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai (2000) and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013). The range of melodies fetched them a fan base that spanned three generations, overnight. Now, one would think that to depict a century-long musical evolution, finding authentic supporting instruments must have been quite a task. But that is what made the video more special — it featured no instruments.
The Italian term a capella means solo singing without instruments; the supporting background score and percussions are provided by a chorus and beatboxers respectively. The group in question is Penn Masala, comprising 20-something boys from the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, who formed the world’s first Hindi-English mash-up a capella band. And this weekend, they are releasing their latest album — Resonance.
Everything about Penn Masala — from their sound to their membership clause — is unique. Established in 1996, it was the only a capella band to blend Eastern sounds with western melodies. It was founded by American-Indian students from the university who hoped to create something that reflected their cultural heritage.
The founding members also decided it was best to keep band synonymous with the alma mater. So, each year, in a bittersweet ceremony, members who graduate from the university leave, making way for new members. And to procure the talent they organise open auditions annually.
“We look at members with a varied prowess in vocals as that’s our greatest strength. But we also hope to recruit genuine team players; we don’t have room for divas,” asserts Chetan Khanna, president of the group.
Today, a group of 12 members, Penn Masala is akin to a musical fraternity. From post-practice hangouts to cooking together, they are pretty much like a family. Even their musical influences are common since most of them belong to Indian families.
“We grew up listening to Bollywood. We have also, picked up a lot of western music. Some of the group’s consistent influences have been AR Rahman, Maroon 5 and Coldplay,” says Prashant Ramesh, the group’s music director.
Fittingly, one of their most celebrated tracks is a mash-up of Coldplay’s Fix You (2005) and Rahman’s Ishq Bina, from Taal (1999). But with such a large strength, we wonder who chooses the songs and decides the arrangement? “It’s a collaborative effort. We look at songs that are popular or interesting and try to find mixes that work. Even for original compositions, one or two members from the group focus only on the lyrics,” says Pranay Sharma, the business manager of the group.
Apart from musical maestros, the boys find inspiration in the most random of places. “A late night study meet or maybe a night out with friends — inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere. The idea for one of our upcoming songs came to us when we were on a road trip from Pennsylvania to Washington DC,” exclaims Ramesh.
Their massive fan following includes a few big names, such as US President Barack Obama. And meeting him was the most memorable legacy for the group. “Performing at the US President’s first Diwali celebration embodies what it means to be Indian-American,” says Sharma.
And in addition to their home ground following, Penn Masala has an ever-expanding Indian fan base, courtesy their renditions of many popular Bollywood songs. They even toured India in 2013 and performed in cities like Mumbai and Kolkata.“Every time we have performed there has been incredibly special. We’ll be back within a year’s time,” says Khanna.
Currently, though, the group is busy with the launch of their latest album. Having explored new genres with this release, they are excited for their hip-hop and alternative R ‘n’ B performances, especially in an a capella format. “Our goal was to make an album that pays homage to our roots while showcasing our evolved creativity. It is very important for us to constantly remind ourselves that everything we do now is built on what the group has done before,” says Khanna.
Resonance will release worldwide on December 11. To listen to complete music collection, log on to youtube.com/pennmasala