Penn Masala, touted to be the world's first South Asian 'A Cappella' group, isn't alien to most of us. They are pretty much on everyone's suggested videos to watch on YouTube. Few seconds into their music and you are transcended into a peaceful world far away. Their music traverses traditional cultural boundaries and captures the experience of growing up with both Eastern and Western cultures making it relevant for all kinds of audiences.
In fact, at a time when Pen Masala was probably the first a cappella group that was refreshingly Desi, the group didn't let the band wither away and continues to carry forward its legacy even after 27 years. Along the way, the band has given the world some of the greatest covers and medleys of Indian and English songs including the medley of A R Rahman's 'Jash-e-Bahara' and Coldplay's 'Viva la Vida', and a mashup of 'Fix You' and 'Ishq Bina' without any accompanying instrument.
From a glee club of sorts at the University of Pennsylvania in 1996 to collaborations with Vishal Dadlani and Benny Dayal, and receiving praises from Aamir Khan, the group has gone through a continuous transition with success all the way. In fact, the group has performed for President Obama, former UN Chief Ban Ki-Moon, Queen Elizabeth and the Ambanis. The all-boys band now has over 90 alumni and has covered over a hundred songs, toured across the world and has their music featured in films like 'Pitch Perfect 2' and 'American Desi'. Over the years, the band has expanded from making physical copies of music to have their music featured on YouTube and Spotify.
Cut to the present, the band is gearing up for their six-city Homecoming tour this month marking it their first trip to India in six years. The all-20-year-olds will be performing in Delhi, Pune, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, and Goa, with two shows in the Bay on May 21 and 28. Ahead of their tour, we caught up with Aryaman Meswani, a key vocalist of the group to talk about their homecoming tour, the source of masala in their band, adding fresh new voices, balancing music with studies, Indian music and more. Excerpts.
It has been six years since Pen Masala performed in India. What are the band members' expectations?
We expect all kinds of people from an older audience to college students. We presume that a younger audience will relate to a lot of our music and our show of course since we are also college students and have covered a lot of music of more recent times, but there is always music for all kinds of audiences for example we have covered songs like Mere Sapno Ki Rani for the older audience. We hope to see a good mix of people in the crowd.
How has the band evolved over the years since it last performed in India?
There have definitely been changes in how the band approaches making music while keeping the core of blending South Asian and Western music a constant. We explored music videos a lot more for example in the last 10 years, the group also covered more regional Indian music in pieces such as the United by Music medley and also collaborated with artists in the Indian music industry like Vishal Dadlani and Benny Dayal.
What are the key qualities that Penn Masala members should have?
Every four years the members change, and we hold auditions every year to take in new members into the group as the graduating class leaves. It's usually based on vocal ability which we test in different ways and there is a behavioural component as well. No prior experience with singing is required as it's solely based on how the candidate sounds on the audition days. We are an all-male group and of course, they must be from the University of Pennsylvania.
The band has become an international sensation, as all student members, how do you navigate the balance between studies and music tours?
It is surely a big time commitment and we do work very hard, but the group usually collectively makes decisions such that everyone's own commitments are taken into consideration, and all of us members of course try our level best to do justice to academics and other commitments. The culture in the group is such that academics and people's own commitments are taken into consideration and prioritised to the best possible level.
The band represents Western and Indian cultures in music as well as in its members. Was that intentional?
The band started off with four college students of Indian descent but they were brought up in the US, and so did have both Western and Indian influences. This was the basis for the band forming. Even today, most of the band members have been Indian American, so yes the mix of Indian and Western styles is central to Penn Masala's ethos.
At present, what kind of music the band is working on?
We are working on making all kinds of songs, with some original music coming out very soon. We have recently covered the songs 'Fire Burning' and 'Chammak Challo' as well and had covered classics like 'Kesariya', and 'Dhoom' in the recent past. Our social media pages also have covers of our mashups of trending songs like 'Man Meri Jaan', and 'Apna Bana Le'.
In the last decade, music has been so much influenced by fusion, do you see this trend for the right or it has negative sides too?
Being fusion artists ourselves I think the group believes fusion is beneficial for music overall since many influences come together to create something unique. I personally have thought fusing different styles is very interesting, but people may surely have reservations when the traditional or the core aspects of a certain genre are compromised due to fusion.
What are the changes you observe in music in the last few years?
This has a very complicated answer. Of course, technology has changed music and made it a lot more advanced in many ways with several new developments in the way music is made. Gradually songs have also gotten shorter over time. High-quality music is something that has been a constant over the years for sure.
How do you see Indian music being accepted in the West?
I have generally seen a positive reaction as Indian music is now becoming popular with the growth of certain songs on social media and the rise of independent music in India has also contributed to this. The language barrier is a key factor in reducing the outreach of Indian music, but hopefully, this reduces in the coming years.
Do tell us about your journey with music and how you see yourself in the future, in terms of your association with the band and music.
I have been learning Tabla since I was seven, and have also been learning light classical singing. I also trained for a few years in Carnatic vocals. I play a little guitar as well and also started writing my own songs three years ago.
What type of music do you like to listen to? Any favourite musicians?
I am a huge fan of several genres of music. I could listen to anything from Carnatic or Hindustani music by Ustad Zakir Hussain and Shankar Mahadevan to some modern Rock and Pop by John Mayer or Ed Sheeran or 70s and 80s classic rock by Dire Straits or Hindi and Tamil film music by AR Rahman.
On May 21 & 28 at Dublin Square (Phoenix Marketcity Mall)
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