By Anhoni Patel
When you first hear the music of Penn Masala, you might be inclined to think theyre using instruments. How else could this group of fourteen singers perform such harmonious acrobatics like the electric sound of a drum machine and the deep booming of a bass? Well, with the skill of their voices and a whole lot of practice. This is no ordinary band or hip hop crew; these are young men, mostly of South Asian origin, studying at the University of Pennsylvania, who belt out a cappella tunes that fuse together Hindi Bollywood classics with contemporary pop.
The group formed in 1996, when several visionary freshman decided to sing the popular songs they grew up dancing to at cultural gatherings and functions, with an added second-generation American twist; thus, the first and foremost South Asian-oriented a cappella troupe was founded and quickly took off. In a musical genre which usually conjures up images of white faces doo-wopping to Western pop music, the group has formed a niche like no other. Although their main influences stem from diverse groups such as Philadelphia natives Boyz2Men, Bally Sagoo, Bidoo and U2, Penn Masala assimilates them in a distinct way that they can call all their own. In their latest album, 11 pm, they write that, Exactly two years ago, we thought we had reached the pinnacle of our musical careers: releasing the worlds first Hindi a cappella album. Our experiences since have surpassed our expectations, and played an integral role in shaping this second album.
People from all over the country, as well as Canada, write in applauding the group on their innovative efforts, and begging, pleading with them to pay a visit to their university or town to do a show. Indeed, they have toured Europe and India, and taken at least two major tours around the country each year; theyve graced audiences in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Bombay, London and Chicago. Last year, they performed at the Zee Gold Bollywood Movie Awards in New York City, which was telecast around the world, giving the group a viewing audience of over one million people. When they were in Bombay, Penn Masala taped a music video for their biggest hit and self-described marquee song Chamak Challo, which aired in Asia and on local South Asian shows here in the U.S.
Their latest claim to fame was a spot on the soundtrack for the well-received independent film, American Desi. The romantic comedy tracks the experiences of an Indian American college student, Krishna Kris Reddy, who is grappling with his identity and is decidedly ashamed of his ethnic background. Against his wishes, he is placed in housing with three other very amusing roommates, Salim, Jagjit and Ajay, who embrace their culture. While in Engineering 101, Kris meets Nina, a strong, independent and hip Indian American woman who exposes him to the nuances of South Asian culture, and changes his notions of what it means to be a Desi. Director Piyush Dinker Pandya had been a fan of Penn Masalas work and personally asked to use two of their songs in the movie. Member Pankaj Kakkar notes that, It was a great fit. Both of us are exploring the dichotomy of cultures and breaking ground in an art form.
American Desi exposed the group to even more audiences across the globe and gave them a spot on a soundtrack right next to the likes of Talvin Singh and David Bowie.
The group seems to take the attention all in stride. After all, they are still college undergrads and their singing is done for pure fun. Sophomores Gaurav Kapadia and Viral Juthani were quick to state that they were not star struck and appreciated all the calls and audience responses. We simply enjoy doing music, they say. And all the status makes us a bit uncomfortable.
As proof of their humbleness, at their shows Penn Masala pokes fun at their culture as well as themselves; they do skits in between their sets that has the audience rolling. At one performance, they parodied the television show Behind the Music. In between each set, they reenacted the fictional rise and fall of the group complete with melodrama and trauma. On their latest CD, they offer an original song Show Me the Meaning of Being Desi which explores the groups multi-culturalism. The chorus of the song goes, Show me the meaning of being desi, FOB (fresh-off-the-boat, referring to new immigrants) or ABCD (American-born-confused-desi), Indian, but no were not all the same. And this is how we play the game. When asked why Penn Masala blends English songs with Hindi ones, one singer responded that, Both the members and the majority of our fan base are from two different cultures themselves. The music represents and speaks to this complex identity. In fact, one of the original members, Brian Hong, was of Korean descent, and when the group first performed it was to a mostly Caucasian audience who appreciated the music and talent in full measure.
Penn Masalas groundbreaking work has inspired other culturally oriented groups to take the next steps. The all-female South Asian-oriented a cappella group NY Masti got its start after attending one of their shows, and worked closely with the group when it launched its own troupe.
So, will we be able to turn on the radio and hear the group belting out its songs alongside Madonna or NSync? As Pankaj Kakkar says, We just want to keep doing the music were doing, expand our horizons and make our work more available. At the rate theyre going, such goals seem to be in the imminent future.