Penn Masala, the South Asian a capella group of the University of Pennsylvania, is way too popular for a college boy-band. The group was in the capital last Saturday to perform live as part of its 10-day India tour.
We caught up with all 15 of its members just before their last gig at Farzi Café, Connaught Place. In a candid chat, they discussed the band’s journey so far, their love for music, each other, and of course, India.
How did the group get its name?
Hari Ravi: We wanted to use a capella as a means to bring together our diverse music backgrounds that has both Western and Bollywood influences. Masala is just that — a mix of a lot of diverse things, like us. Penn comes from our university name. So we put it together.
How do you choose your members?
Hari: As members graduate, more people come in from another fresh class. The needs of the group vary every year. We take auditions and call back students if we like them. Then we do a more thorough screening process. We also see if the person fits in with the group culture.
With members changing every year, how do you ensure the quality of music?
Prashant Ramesh: There are ebbs and flows in the talent of the group every year but we try to take care of it as much as possible while recruiting. Most of us joined Masala as much weaker singers, percussionists and rappers. We develop our skills during our time in the group. Our collective knowledge, connection with our alumni, and the transfer of the traditions and ideas to our juniors ensure that we are able to raise the bar each time.
The group currently has 15 members. How do you make decisions? Who has the final say?
Prashant: We try to make decisions collectively as much as we can. Fifteen is a lot of people but not too much to have a voting system or anything of the sort. It’s easy for us to sit in a room and talk things through. But we do have an executive structure with a president, a music director, a manager and other posts. It helps us streamline things.
Chetan Khanna: As you join the group, you get this passion, the desire to think beyond yourself, about the group as a whole, about what you can do to help it.
Penn Masala was formed 20 years ago. How has the journey been?
Chetan: When it started, no one expected it to be what it has become. It was formed because we were trying to resonate with our identities as Indian Americans, something that brought together the aspects of our heritage. And when we started doing it, it resonated with a lot of other people. Once we saw that so many people were enjoying our music, we got this need to do better. Even today, there is this constant desire to push Masala to new boundaries.
How does it feel to have your own set of fan following at such a young age?
Hari: It’s pretty unreal. This is a very surreal experience for all of us. It really makes us happy to be able to put out music that makes so many people happy. This is what pushes us to continue working hard.
How has the India tour been?
Wrik Sinha: I am from Calcutta, and I go there whenever I come to India with family. But this time, I performed in front of my family as part of Masala for the first time, and it was fantastic. The India tour as a whole has been crazy. We have had fans go mad. They made poems and art for us. This doesn’t happen in the US. It has been really fun.
Hari: We sang with Shaan, Tulsi Kumar. It has been too good to be true. We never really come across these opportunities in the US. It can happen only in India.
Have any of the Penn members pursued music as a career in all these years?
Prashant: No one so far has taken up music as a profession. Hari is the first one who is planning on taking it up after college. A lot of people don’t recognise it, but we are college students. We are at Penn to study, believe it or not. For all of us, music is a great break from our professional aspirations, an outlet to step away from the stress of school, hang out with an awesome group of guys, and jam. If this was my job, it would not have been as much fun.
Why are there no girls in the group?
Praveen Rajaguru: The group started with guys. For our musical requirements, we need guys as vocalists. Female singers usually have higher voices and with our sound, it is a little difficult to blend them in.
Prashant: We have been trying to do collaborations with female artists. Our background vocals are in the male register of voice. So adding female vocalists into the arrangement would require a lot of retro-filling and changing things. That wouldn’t work out for us, but having female soloists accompanying us works well with us. We have done that before and it was received very well.
Watch the boy-band interact and perform at Hindustan Times:
The author tweets at @sneha_bengani