Vocal chords: A capella band Penn Masala is back for a six-city homecoming tour - Hindustan Times

Vocal chords: A capella band Penn Masala is back for a six-city homecoming tour

Aug 03, 2023 01:32 PM IST

The group’s East-West mashups aim to help people see the futility of all borders. Based at the University of Pennsylvania, the band is back in India this month.

In 1996, four Indian-origin students in a dorm room at the University of Pennsylvania campus were talking about how popular A capella music had become. It was popping up on campuses across the US. Yet, in these vocals-only performances—incidentally, A capella is Italian for “church style”, because this is how choral music was traditionally performed, but the term is now used for any music performed without accompanying music — they didn’t hear any of the songs they grew up with.

The group currently consists of 13 members, an Indian, a Chinese-American and Indian-origin Americans. Members stay with the group as long as they’re students at the university. (Abhiram Juvvadi)
The group currently consists of 13 members, an Indian, a Chinese-American and Indian-origin Americans. Members stay with the group as long as they’re students at the university. (Abhiram Juvvadi)

That’s how Penn Masala was born, founded by Kunal Bajaj, Deep Trivedi, Himanshu Sheth and Naveen Wadhera, all aged 18 to 20. The aim, then and now, is to bring Western pop and Eastern melodies together in unique ways that will appeal across demographics.

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It’s a prestigious group to be a part of. Penn Masala was invited to perform at the Obama White House, in 2009; has toured the US, Canada and UK; and released 12 independent studio albums featuring mashups of songs in Hindi, English, Arabic, Punjabi, Kannada, Telugu and Tamil. (Incidentally, the group usually connects with the labels that own the original copyright; and adheres to fair-use laws by reinventing all the segments that they borrow).

The band currently comprises one Indian student, 11 Indian-origin American students and one American of Chinese descent, all aged 18 to 22. They’re a mix of beatboxers and singers; students of computer science, math, biology, business, bioengineering, economics and electrical engineering.

“A few of us in the group even mentioned Penn Masala in our college essays, as one of the reasons we wanted to go to this university,” says Ajay Kilambi, 20.

The band is now set to perform in India, six years after their last visit, in a six-city tour titled Homecoming (May 19 to 29). Produced by BookMyShow’s TribeVibe, the tour includes concerts in Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Goa.

Expect seamless blends of Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’s Uptown Funk with Benny Dayal and Shefali Alvares’s Badtameez Dil; The Weeknd’s Blinding Lights with Mahalakshmi Iyer and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s Bol Na Halke Halke. The group will also perform tracks from their latest album, Midnight Oil (2022). “On the album, we showcased the talents of members with Carnatic music training, in classical renditions. The album also holds our first-ever Tamil cover, a mashup of Leon James and Sid Sriram’s Kadhaippoma (Shall We Talk), and Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber’s I Don’t Care,” says group member and business manager Gaurish Gaur, 18.

What does it take to put a group like this together, in a format that sees the average member stay for just four years? “We look for an even distribution of vocal parts — bass, baritone and tenor,” says Prateek Adurty, 19, the group’s music director. There has to be at least one beatboxer in the group at all times too, he adds.

At the start of each Fall semester, the group holds auditions. Formal music training is not required, but a keen understanding of fusion music is necessary, Adurty says. “The personality of each applicant also matters, because we spend a lot of time together.”

Members gather for practice four days a week, three hours each time. This time is spent creating new mashups, rehearsing older ones, and shooting Reels to post on @pennmasala, which as 1.2 lakh followers.

When creating a new blend, the band starts by picking a genre — party, hip-hop, ballad — then looks for trending songs to incorporate. “As opposed to instrumental music, where you might have one or two lead singers over an instrumental beat, A capella music creates a great sense of community. Every one of our members is singing and shaping the sound in all our creations,” says group president Raghunandan Raman, 20.

As part of the band’s larger mission to use music to alter how people view their world, Penn Masala occasionally takes on special projects. In 2020, they collaborated with composer Vishal Dadlani and lyricist Poojan Sahil on an original song titled Main Hoon Na Tera (But I Am Yours). Released on YouTube in 2020, it raised about 20 lakh, which was donated to two NGOs working to help daily wage earners make it through the pandemic.

A big goal for the group, going forward, is to be featured in a Bollywood film. “We’ve covered so many songs from the movie Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, that if we were given a choice to create music for a Bollywood film, it would be this one,” says Raman. “But to be featured in any Bollywood film is the dream.”

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