From a group of 4 college students in 1996 to a band on world tour, Penn Masala has come a long way. While the members of the college band are ever evolving, their ethos has remained the same over the 21 years: bringing together Indian and Western music through a cappella. Currently composed of 11 members, the world’s first South Asian a cappella group recently released its 10th studio album – Yuva. The University of Pennsylvania band has graced the stage for the likes of then-U.S. President Barack Obama, Mukesh Ambani, and Indian International Film Academy (IIFA) Awards, and are now belting out their beats across India with their Yuva Tour.
As the gents of Penn Masala take over India’s coordinates with their cords, #DSSCSecretConversations tunes into these men instrumental (yep,we did that) in South Asian & Western fusion music.
Going back to the genesis of Penn Masala, how did the idea of an A Capella group come about?
Hari: Penn Masala started in 1996 when a group of four college students decided to bring together their love of music and the two cultures they grew up with. The initial idea was just to explore the genre of a cappella in a relatable manner to the Indian American community. But since then, the group has grown into something that none of us could have ever seen coming, and we can’t wait to see where it’ll go from here!
Was it a conscious decision to incorporate the cultural aspect, bringing together Indian & Western music?
Nikhil: Yeah! When the four founders came together, they wanted to use a cappella to fuse Indian and Western music, and it’s something we strive to do with our music even now. We hope to continue creating blends of the two cultures in a way that our fans enjoy.
As the first group to bring Indian music to A Capella, how would you say is it different from A Capella for western tunes?
Atman: From the syllables in our vocal backgrounds to the vocal percussion sounds we incorporate, we try and create an authentic Indian sound with the way we compose and produce our music through a cappella. That means using syllables that are reminiscent of Indian music or experimenting with dhol and tabla sounds in vocal percussion, as well as finding ways to create overlap between the two styles of sound.
How do you go about picking songs, deciding which eastern & western melodies to pair, and creating the final product?
Praveen: Picking mixes is simultaneously one of the most exciting and difficult aspects for the group. There are a lot of factors to consider, such as audience appeal, the thematic fit between two songs, and a potential song’s musical fit within an album. At the end of the day, anyone in the group can suggest ideas for mashups, but we think critically about styles that we haven’t covered recently and certain artists we would like to cover before making a final choice on which mashups we move forward with.
Over the course of 21 years, how has the group evolved in terms of the music you make and the audience’s perception of heterogeneous A Capella?
Atman: Though our foundation is still in the Hindi/English mashups that have come to define the group, our music has definitely changed a lot over the years. We’re always looking to reflect popular music of the time, which recently has involved exploration into dance and electronic music, like Tonight I’m Lovin’ You/Dilliwaali Girlfriend from our latest album.
Is there a particular genre of songs that Penn Masala favours?
Praveen: There isn’t really one particular genre of songs that the group favours. We try to cover a wide variety of styles through our music, from pop and dance music to classical Indian and R&B. As the group changes over the years, different members have different talents and we try and take advantage of our strengths in the music that we choose to cover.
The band has always comprised of male students – is this a conscious policy and is including female students a possible future?
Hari: The group started off as all-male perhaps by coincidence, but we’ve maintained that as a tradition since then. From a musical standpoint, we’ve developed a core style through the male vocal register, and incorporating female voices now presents a pretty big change and challenge. We are definitely not opposed, however – we collaborated with Jonita Gandhi for the track Manwa Laage off of our previous album, Resonance. She has a beautiful voice that added diversity to our album, and we really enjoyed what she brought to the song. We hope to collaborate with more female artists in the future.
What ignited the idea for the ‘youth’ themed album Yuva & what was the process of selecting and composing songs?
Praveen: Yuva is our 10th studio album, while staying true to what we believe describes our core sound, we have experimented with other elements depending on the songs we cover, by adding gang vocals, elemental sounds (rain), and EDM effects. We have covered a variety of songs, from classics like Baar Baar Dekho, Haal Kaisa Hai Janaab Ka, and Humma Humma, to current hits like Nashe Si Chadh Gayi and Sau Asmaan. Each mashup highlights a different aspect of youth that we hope our fans can enjoy!
You’ve performed in India before, how’s the experience been till date?
Nikhil: India has been one of the most amazing experiences we’ve had as a group. It’s always an honour meeting such enthusiastic fans, and we don’t get the opportunity to meet them that often. Many of us also have family in India, so getting the chance to perform for family is always an awesome time. This year we’ve added on Chennai and Pune to our tour, so we’re excited to perform in these cities for the first time and meet our fans there!
You’ve performed extensively across borders, according to you how does the audience culture change with a change in the demographics?
Anvit: Honestly, most of the audiences that we perform for are pretty similar in the way they enjoy our music, from singing along and getting engaged with our performance, as well as dancing along to our songs. Across borders, the biggest difference is the specific songs that audiences enjoy in particular, whether that’s songs like Mitwa and Tere Bina in India or Heartless and Viva la Vida in the U.S.
What are you looking forward to most for the Indian leg of The Yuva Tour?
Hari: We’re really looking forward to meeting family, exploring each city, and most importantly, meeting our fans. We wouldn’t be where we are without our fans, and we have so much to thank them for. We hope this Yuva Tour in India will give us a chance to meet some of our fans!
As the Penn Masala fellas take position behind their mics, we amp up the signature DSSC Rapid Fire before taking position before the stage.
The current favourite track on Penn Masala’s list?
Penn Masala: Viva La Vida/Jashne Bahara.
Top 3 music finds in the last 3 months?
Penn Masala: Attention by Charlie Puth, It ain’t me by Selena Gomez, Ik Vaari Aa by Arijit Singh.
The band’s most-loved song from Yuva?
Penn Masala: Photograph/Aayat/Laal Ishq.
One Penn Masala ritual before going live on stage?
Penn Masala: We huddle up and do an a capella version of Lose Myself by Eminem.
The group’s comfort food?
Penn Masala: Pani Puri.
This conversation is a part of the DSSC Secret Conversation Series, where we get candid with the ace industry disruptors who map its course one masterstroke at a time.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this feature are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of DSSC & its affiliates.