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Mixing up a storm

ZEENAB ANEEZ
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Concert Penn Masala gave the city’s fans a perfect mix of Indian and international sounds

Keeping the beatPenn MasalaPHOTO: NAGARA GOPAL
Keeping the beatPenn MasalaPHOTO: NAGARA GOPAL

The members of Penn Masala travel light. It is four in the afternoon and members of the band are streaming into Hard Rock Café, Banjara Hills, most of them carrying no more than a backpack; one of the small pleasures of being part of the world’s first Hindi acapella group; the bigger ones include touring the world and sharing the stage with A.R. Rahman, Sachin Tendulkar, performing for President Obama during Diwali celebrations in the White House and for Ban Ki Moon. The lack of instruments and heavy equipment was more than compensated by their voices and choice of content and sheer energy.

“Tonight’s show is going to be a teaser of sorts for our new album which is due to be released in March,” explains Varshil Patel, talking about the night’s big show which saw a large crowd of fans flock to the venue. Varshil, like the other members of the group is a student at the University of Pennsylvania where the band was formed 17 years ago by four friends who decided to experiment. They have already released seven full-length albums: Awaaz, 11 PM, Soundcheck, The Brown Album, Pehchaan, On Detours, Panoramic and Out of Stock , and have one more in the pipeline.

Why acapella and why Hindi? “During the time when the band was founded, acapella was very popular so it seemed like a good idea, given that the founding members were good vocalists. The decision to sing Hindi songs was based mainly on the fact that we had a common knowledge base of popular Hindi songs. Since most of us were Indian but never grew up here, we thought this was the perfect way to blend our south-asian knowledge with our western upbringing,” explains Varshil. But singing Hindi songs gave the band the identity they needed, in order to stand out among the other acapella groups on campus.

“The first song was an instant hit with the crowd and the audience were happy to let the band keep singing,” says. Apart from their original compositions, the group is popular for their mash-ups of popular Hindi and English songs. While taking a Coldplay song and teaming it up with a popular Hindi song might seem like an easy formula, Penn Masala picks, chooses and mixes carefully. Varshil explains that this involves quite a bit of brainstorming and many a jam session. “There is definitely an artistic process involved in the songs we pick. As a group we have different tastes in music so we put it all together and come up with a unique mix. We prefer to pick an undiscovered song and sing our version of it, rather than pick a popular one and recreate its magic. We have an elected music director every year to oversee this process,” he explains. Inspiration can come anytime, “In fact, we came up with a mix while we were on the bus here from Pune,” he says. “We’ll probably work on it a bit more and include it on the next album.”

Membership of the band changes every year and students join and leave University. The band holds auditions for new members and a music director is elected every year to oversee the creative process. With the entry of new members, Penn Masala doesn’t restrict itself to Hindi anymore.

They are now experimenting with plenty of languages – Telugu, Tamil, Bengali and Urdu among others.

ZEENAB ANEEZ

We prefer to pick an undiscovered song and sing our version of it, rather than pick a popular one and recreate its magic.

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