“He who sings scares away his woes.” – Cervantes
Penn Masala, an American a cappella group, first of its unique kind strongly believes in the above phrase. The Italian term ‘a cappella’ means solo singing without instruments. The supporting background score and percussions are provided by a chorus and beatboxers respectively. This trendy group comprises of some 20 boys from the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, who formed the world’s first Hindi-English mash-up a capella band.
Unlike the typical boy band with designer clothes and fancy style, Penn Masala has the boy-next-door look with simple and classy gestures. The group was formed in 1996 by a bunch of enthusiastic students at the University of Pennsylvania, to represent their sub-continental heritage and music through a cappella singing. It was the only a capella band to blend Eastern sounds with western melodies. Today the group has 15 passionate members.
“As you join the group, you get this passion, the desire to think beyond yourself, about the group as a whole, about what you can do to help it”, - Chetan Khanna, president of Penn Masala.
What’s In The Name?
The group wanted to use a capella as a means to bring together their diverse music backgrounds that have both Western and Bollywood influences. “Masala is just that — a mix of a lot of diverse things like us. Penn comes from our university name. So we put it together.” -Hari Ravi, one of the group member commented on justifying their name.
Being the first a capella band with Bollywood and English mashups is a challenge in itself. Another biggest challenge is the selection process. As the founding members decided to keep the band identical with the alma mater, with each graduate members there is an entry of a fresh voice. Hence each year, as members graduate from the university, they leave the band too making way for new members. Auditions are conducted annually to acquire fresh talents. Since they do not have a fixed set of members, it is mandatory that a new member fits in with the group culture.
“As members graduate from the group, and new singers are taken in, we gain members who sing different voice parts (soprano, tenor, etc.) and have different styles of singing. While this is definitely a challenge, we think that this change also adds something unique to our sound.” - Brendan Mcmanus, a member of the band.
The Brotherhood: No Place For Female Members
Penn Masala is analogous to a musical fraternity. The brotherhood is an important factor in the group. In spite of new members joining every year, they get along well and become one, maybe because of the same alma mater. From post-practice hangouts to cooking together, they are pretty much like a family. Since most of them belong to Indian families, their musical influences are common too. The group places brotherhood and tradition before anything else.
“While the nature of our work is, of course, musical, every year, we lay a lot of emphasis on building a tight-knit culture. Every member can proudly say, I came for the music, but stayed for the brotherhood.” –Hari Ravi
“Why are there no girls in the group?” A frequent question showered on them. One of the primary reasons for not having girls in the band is a tradition. A tradition of being an all-male outfit that is fit for the background vocals.
“We have been trying to do collaborations with female artists. Our background vocals are in the male register of voice. So adding female vocalists into the arrangement would require a lot of retro-filling and changing things. That wouldn’t work out for us, but having female soloists accompanying us works well with us. We have done that before and it was received very well.” –Prashant
The Massive Fan Following
From US President Barack Obama to all across the continent, every individual is a fan of Penn Masala. “Performing at the US President’s first Diwali celebration embodies what it means to be Indian-American,” says Sharma. Getting excess popularity at such a young age, diverting them from their focus? Not at all! Their brotherhood is so strong and such is their motive, which is the constant desire to push Masala to new boundaries. Unlike most other bands no one so far has taken up music as a profession.
“We are at Penn to study, believe it or not. For all of us, music is a great break from our professional aspirations, an outlet to step away from the stress of school, hang out with an awesome group of guys, and jam. If this was my job, it would not have been as much fun.” - Chetan
With their incredible and passionate goal, we at Passion Connect wish them all the luck to make their homeland proud and pay homage to their roots while showcasing their evolved creativity.