After mesmerising Delhi and Pune, the world’s first desi a cappella group, Penn Masala, is all set to perform to an enthusiastic gathering in Mumbai on 21 and 28 as part of their six-city Homecoming tour. A few of the band members speak of their visit, their journey, and performing at the White House for President Barack Obama.
Excerpts from the interview:
How did the name Penn Masala came about?
Raghu Raman: Penn Masala was founded by four students at the University of Pennsylvania who had a shared love of fusion Desi and Western music in the form of a cappella. A cappella is essentially a musical performance or rendition without any instruments. As for the name, Penn Masala came to represent how the group ‘spiced’ up the traditional western a cappella scene with some desi fusion elements.
How frequently do you have line-up changes?
Prateek Adurty: Thirteen members are currently in the group. Group composition changes every year as our graduating seniors sadly leave. However, we take in new freshmen who will spend the next approximate four years with a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Besides Bollywood music, Hindi and English songs, do you also have any original songs to your playlist?
Samarth Nayak: Yes, we do. Penn Masala has always experimented with having original songs. For example, our 2009 album,
On Detours, has one of my personal favorites, Distant Places. Even our most recent album, Midnight Oil, features one of our most popular songs, Hazy, an original song that’s a mix of Western R&B/Jazz and Eastern Carnatic runs.
Tell us more about Midnight Oil.
Raghu Raman: Midnight Oil was released in 2020 and represents the group coming back together after the pandemic. The title largely comes from the phrase, “Burning the midnight oil.” This often represents staying up late for studying, working, or reading. Therefore, the title of the album represents the hard-work the group put into the newest album in the wake of the pandemic that has some of the groups' most popular songs like Dhoom/ Talk Dirty or Blinding Lights/ Bol Na Halke Halke.
How does the song synchronisation take place?
Venu Chillal: Blending our background parts to sound like one cohesive voice is very important in a capella. It takes hours of practicing and listening to everyone singing to make everything match and synchronise.
What are the requirements to be part of Penn Masala?
Ajay Kilambi: There’s no requirement except for enjoying music. While some of our members are classically trained, or have prior choir experience, some others are just shower singers.
What has been your most memorable concert ever?
Venu Chillal: In Masala history, I think the most memorable performance has been for President Obama in 2009 for the White House Diwali Celebration. It was an honor and truly humbling moment to know how widespread the appreciation for Desi fusion a cappella music had come since its inception in 1996. As a current group member, my favorite performance was at Purdue University just this past year. With a large crowd, with lots of energy, I feel like the group is able to feed into the energy and have an amazing, high-energy performance.
What challenges do you face while making music without instruments?
Prateek Adurty: Sometimes the hardest part can be translating original songs into arrangements that do not have any instrumental components. We have to work from scratch to figure out how our original melodies and sounds can come together in an a cappella format. It takes a lot of work and effort.
What do you love about being in Penn Masala?
Gaurish Gaur: The people. Be it the current Masala members who are there to support me, balancing being in a touring group while also having to deal with finals, or the alumni who are always there to give me advice about how to maximise the college experience. The people and history of Penn Masala is what makes it where I want to be.
What can we expect from the show in Mumbai?
Riju Datta: The songs you can expect from us at the show in Mumbai are high-energy and made to make you want to sing and dance. From Masala classics like Viva La Vida / Jashne-e-Bahara, to emotional songs like Photograph / Aayat / Laal Ishq, to even new and never-seen-before performances of Uptown Funk / Badtameez Dil. Trust us, this is a performance you do not want to miss.
Do you feel that desis are represented well in music overseas?
Rohit Rajagopalan: No, desi representation is still extremely limited in music overseas. However, as time has progressed, desi representation in the media has gotten better. But this only sets the stage for more and more efforts from groups like Penn Masala to ensure that desi music is represented in Western media.
What are your thoughts about the American capella group Pentatonix?
Samarth Nayak: Pentatonix is one of our biggest inspirations. A lot of group members take inspiration from what they have been able to do and what we can do to bring that amount of attention to the desi a cappella scene.
What are Penn Masala’s plans for the future?
Venu Chillal: We have just released our newest music video of Fire Burning/ Chammak Challo. In India, we’re set to do some pretty big collaborations with artistes who inspired all of us to pursue music. But looking towards the future, Penn Masala has a goal of wanting to be in a big-budget Indian film as part of the soundtrack.