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Chatting up with Penn Masala

March 2003
Chatting up with Penn Masala

You may or may not have heard of Penn Masala?you may or may not have listened to one of their CDs or caught one of their shows, even their recent sold-out show at the Rialto in Atlanta? but you know these boys. They are the quintessential college students, a mixture of Indian and Indian-American kids. Essentially wholesome, they study hard and pursue practical majors like business administration, engineering and medicine. They are polite and articulate, and they have a bit of that Bollywood music bug.

What makes them different is their unique approach. Using their creativity and confidence, which they have in abundance, these young men entertained more than 900 people at their Atlanta appearance, who all left the show with smiles on their faces. So, what?s their secret? What makes their crooning so much more appealing than those unsuspecting boys and girls singing their latest songs at our Indian cultural shows?

A cappella (an Italian phrase meaning ?in the style of the chapel?) is used to describe a pure style of choral music, which evolved in Italy during the Renaissance. It originally developed because musical instruments were not available or were prohibited for religious reasons. A cappella choirs are quite common on university campuses in the U.S. Until recently, even as the style caught on and took the forms of barbershop quartets and some R&B groups, there were no Indian groups that used Bollywood songs. That?s when Penn Masala filled the gap. These young men sing songs and, at the same time, create the effects of an orchestra by just using their voices. Add a little humor to that, and we have a group that?s very different from the Indian bands we usually come across.

Penn Masala came to Atlanta in February to perform at a fundraiser for Raksha, an organization that addresses social issues within the South Asian community. Khabar had a chat with them before the entertainment began.

How did Penn Masala start?

We started in 1996 with just 5-6 guys and got really good breaks in 1997-98. After the first album (11 p.m.) was released, we started getting international attention. We were traveling to big Indian functions and we focussed on our niche. There was absolutely a void and there was no other ethnic and Hindi a cappella group in the country. Indians saw a completely new art form though it was quite common for Americans.

What has happened to the alumni members, especially the original ones who started the group? Do they stay involved with Penn Masala or music in any way?

The alumni members aren?t really involved. They come to the big annual show in Philadelphia (in March). We are starting to organize an alumni board. No, none of them are doing anything with music. For everyone this was a very serious hobby, but just a hobby.

What sort of formal vocal or instrumental training do the members of your group have? Does that always help or does it ever get in the way?

Everyone in this group has a varied musical background. Some people have zero experience singing or with musical instruments and other people have years of experience with instruments or singing in a chorus. Pretty much everyone has their own interest and they delve deeper into knowing about music theory, how to arrange a cappella music, finding the best format, sound levels and things like that. So we are all good at sharing, which has made our group more knowledgeable about music, sound and a cappella.

I have heard that most of you don?t really know any Hindi, and yet your niche is mixing Hindi/English songs. Is this a fact or a myth?

[They laugh with a show of hands by everyone who knows Hindi.] Yeah, about half. A bunch of guys in the group are FOBs (Fresh Off the Boat); they have spent most of their lives in India. They come here and definitely add a lot to the group in terms of their music choice and what people are listening to in India. For those of us who don?t speak Hindi, they are huge assets.

Is the FOB vs. ABCD a real dynamic in the group, or just a stage-show?

It?s just a stage thing. Everyone gets along marvelously. It?s an Indian-American pop culture thing. It?s an Indian-American device that appeals to us, and South Asian entertainment is always exploring it. For example, in movies like American Desi, American Chai, etc., it?s always funny and it?s always fun.

How do you select new members?

We hold auditions in the beginning of every semester, and we scour the campus for people who are willing to try out. And then we have an audition process in which we put on our songs and they try blending in with the group. And then we make the decision. It?s rather competitive but it?s worth it in the end. Basically, all the Indian freshmen, all of varying music skills, somewhere between 40-60, come out and we pick about 2-4.

You collaborated with Indian Apache when you started out and then you worked on the soundtrack for American Desi. If you could collaborate with anyone, who would that be?

(A. R.) Rehman, definitely!

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