Penn Masala is a US-based a capella group that is best known for their creative renditions of popular Hindi songs. The group was founded in 1996 by students from the University of Pennsylvania. Since then, they have regaled audiences across the world (including The White House) with songs that fuse tunes from the east and the west. Ahead of the group’s performance in Mumbai, we spoke to vocalists Brendan McManus and Hari Ravi about why the group has never featured any women, and how they balance their coursework with their creative pursuits, and more.
Penn Masala will complete 20 years later this year. That is quite a feat. What do you think has worked in the group’s favour?
Hari Ravi: The strong emphasis that we place on brotherhood and tradition has kept us together. While the nature of our work is, of course, musical, every year, we lay a lot of emphasis on building a tight-knit culture. Also, we take in new singers each year. Every member can proudly say, “I came for the music, but stayed for the brotherhood.”
How do you decide which English song will work well with a Hindi one?
Hari: While selecting an English song, we look for a musical and a lyrical fit. The primary obstacle is always to find a track that fits in with the same key as the Hindi song. But beyond that, we also look for songs that have similar meanings. To us, that is the most engaging and musically stimulating part of the process, as it pushes us to come up with a mix that is unified musically and lyrically, and truly blends western and South Asian culture.
As a cappella group, what challenges do you face?
Brendan mcmanus: As members graduate from the group, and new singers are taken in, we gain members who sing different voice parts (soprano, tenor, etc.), and have different styles of singing. While this is definitely a challenge, we think that this change also adds something unique to our sound.
What is your selection process usually like?
Hari: Currently, there are 15 singers in the group. Because we are affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania, our auditions are very similar to what most other a cappella groups have on campus. Our first round of auditions is open to any male Penn student — no singing experience is required. We ask them to prepare a verse and a chorus of an English and/or Hindi song, and if we like what we hear, we invite them for another, more intensive audition, where we look at factors like vocal range, versatility of styles, pitch accuracy, and how they fit overall in the group. Based on what Penn Masala needs at that time, the group chooses about three to four people each year.
Watch: The Antakshari Project: Holi - Penn Masala
Have you ever considered inviting female singers to join your group?
Brendan: One of the primary reasons we don’t have girls in the group right now is because we have traditionally been an all-male outfit, and have grown to appreciate the current sound of the group. That being said, our last collaboration was with Jonita Gandhi, for our cover of ‘Manwa laage’ (Happy New Year; 2014). The song was also part of our new album, Resonance. Jonita was incredible to work with, and her talent added an entirely new dimension to the song. We’re actively looking to collaborate with more female artistes in the future.
How many of you are from India? What are you looking forward to doing in Mumbai?
Brendan: One of our current members, Yamir Tainwala, is from Kolkata. We are definitely looking forward to exploring the city, going shopping, and meeting up with our friends and families. I’m personally looking forward to visiting Juhu Beach.
Watch: Phir Le Aaya Dil by Penn Masala
Besides Bollywood music and original tracks, does the group plan to undertake any other musical projects?
Hari: Original songs have been a very important part of this group throughout its history. They are a true reflection of our journey and brotherhood. A few of our popular originals are ‘Reflection (In your eyes)’, ‘Distant Places’ and ‘Is pal mein’. We also try to pursue innovative musical projects like ‘Evolution of Bollywood music’, a medley of popular Bollywood songs from the ’50s to date. This past week, we just released ‘The Antakshari Project: Holi’, which is our own a cappella take on Antakshari.