Bwog music guru Shreyas Manohar brings you his coverage of the world’s first Hindi a cappella group, Penn Masala.
The Penn Masala concert organised by club Zamana was a difficult concert to sit through because of all the important life choices I had to make. Do I get up on my chair and cheer like a maniac to vent out my appreciation for the music or do I just watch it silently so that my inane screaming doesn’t pollute the soulful and angelic voices of Penn Masala? You know how in some movies the iconic scenes are in slow-motion? This whole concert was like that. In slow motion I could see Penn Masala filling the air with their magical voices, people clapping like excited seals, fan-girls cheering loudly and the long line of people waiting outside staring inside from the windows of closed doors.
Living in USA as an international student is sometimes an ordeal. You have two different identities. You are a citizen of your own country and you are also a part of the US. I haven’t figured out how to combine these two identities congenially yet but Penn Masala has been doing it since 1996. Fusing English and Hindi songs, Penn Masala is the world’s first first and premier Hindi a cappella group at University of Pennsylvania. They are set to feature in Pitch Perfect 2, have performed for Obama and Ban Ki-moon, have had sold out tours and eight full length albums. “How can a college a cappella be so successful?” I heard the guy sitting beside me say at the start. In the end he said, “Oh, now I can see why! I don’t even understand Hindi but I can see why.”
Penn Masala became popular when they released their video Evolution of Bollywood, which summed up the musical history of Bollywood in one video. I watched the video with my parents and grandparents. It was amazing how all of our favourite songs were covered in this one mash-up. Penn Masala not only connected the English speaking and Hindi speaking identities but also the older and newer generations.
I spoke to two members of Penn Masala, Dilip Rajan and Prashant Ramesh.
Shreyas: I applied to Penn just that so that I could see Penn Masala perform on campus. Why did PM make it big and not the hundreds of other a cappella groups? What does PM have which makes crazy weirdos apply to Penn just to listen to them?
Dilip: I think one thing which is really special about the group is our style of music. Since we started, we did a really good job of capturing identities of lots of people that live in US. The Indians who live here listen to the Hindi music their parents and grandparents listen to and the music that their friends listen to. We combine both. This style really hit home with a lot of people.
Shreyas: Which has been your best crowd? The answer will change in four hours so I don’t know if this question is even valid.
Prashant: The most memorable performance was at the International Indian Film Academy Awards.
Dilip : We performed the evolution of Bollywood song which had these olds songs and the actors watching us were the same people who had originally been in those songs. That was unbelievable.
Shreyas: When you met these Bollywood stars, were they as dazzled as I am right now?
Prashant: We were more dazzled.
Shreyas: PM just doesn’t use other songs but also has its own creations. Do you plan on doing more original compositions?
Dilip: Yes, for sure! Originals are something we’d like to do more of. It’s something very unique that you wont see with other acapella groups. I think we are definitely trying to do more original tracks.
Shreyas: Can we expect to see a new album?
Prashant: We are figuring things out but you can expect to see more new content. We are releasing Music Videos at a regular pace.
Shreyas: As someone who loves to sing but is a horrible singer, I need some tips. Help me
Dilip: If you like singing, keep singing. Most of us never had any formal lessons. Some people learnt classical music when they were young, some of them had choir training and some just showed up during rehearsal. If you love singing, continue it. There is no reason not to.
Not exaggerating (maybe a little) when I say India would’ve got independence a few years earlier had Penn Masala been functional then. PM is astonishingly good at combining genres/languages/generations and bringing people together. After harmonising languages and generations, they brought the South Asian community at Columbia together. In Penn Masala’s mash-up of Desi Girl/Down (by Jay Sean), there was a moment at the very peak of the song when everybody spontaneously and simultaneously got up from their seat to break into an energetically uninhibited Jig.The concert made me feel such a sense of togetherness with the south-asian community here at Columbia. It felt like eating home-cooked food together on the dining table or like lighting a fire-cracker with my family on Diwali. Penn Masala made me feel in sync with everybody here. Penn Masala made me feel at home.
Photo courtesy of Shreyas Manohar.