Penn Masala, the world’s first Hindi a cappella group, was formed in 1996 by a group of students at the University of Pennsylvania. Since then, the group has performed throughout the USA, including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Houston, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC (at the Kennedy Center with A.R. Rahman). Internationally, the group has performed in Toronto, London, Mumbai, and Kolkata.
Penn Masala’s music incorporates lots of western and eastern styles including pop, hip-hop, R&B, rock, Indian classical styles, and Bollywood. Many of its songs use both English and Hindi, and occasionally the group sings in Arabic, Punjabi, and Tamil. Most of the group’s songs consist of a fusion of an English-language pop song and a Hindi film song.
The group has produced five CDs, including its latest release, “Pehchaan,” which is available on iTunes.
The CulturalConnect spoke with the group’s president, Samir Sheth. Samir is a senior at Penn, majoring in Economics. He has been a member of Penn Masala since his freshman year.
It’s a very collaborative process. We sit down and think of Indian songs and English-language songs that we like – often songs we’ve heard on the radio or in Indian films – and we think about whether the messages and music and style of any of those Indian songs match up with those of any of the English-language songs, and that’s how we decide on the fusion songs that we do.
We also do some songs that are just Hindi, such as Mitwa or Woh Lamhe, both from our latest album.
How do you do your arranging and composing?
A few of us in the group who have a lot of musical experience sit down and figure out the parts and start dividing everything up and notating it, and then we teach it to the rest of the group. Often the best parts of the songs come about not when we are arranging, but while we’re actually teaching the song to the whole group. When the whole group hears everyone singing it, the guys get ideas of their own and make suggestions.
So a lot of times the stuff we end up actually singing is quite different (and better) than what we originally came up with.
With the original songs, the process is a little different at the start. We sit down and talk about what type of song we want to write, what type of message we want to convey, and we start arranging chords and parts, and then it goes through that same process of revising. The group also has input while we teach it to them.
While arranging and composing, do you actually notate the music onto staff paper and then use that sheet music to teach the songs to the larger group?
That also varies, depending on who’s the main person writing or arranging the song. Some guys like to notate it meticulously. Others have the melodies and harmonies in their head and teach it that way. And some people are in between.
Some guys like to write the lyrics first and then write the melodies. Others prefer to have the music first. I fall into that second camp, probably because my background is more with instruments and I’m used to composing music without lyrics.
Yes, you’re a pretty accomplished pianist, right?
Yeah, when I was four, my mom started me on piano lessons. I enjoyed it and kept up the lessons all the way through high school. I played classical and jazz, and I composed pieces for the piano. In sixth grade I started playing various percussion instruments in the school band. In high school, I started playing guitar, since I was listening to so much rock music by then. A lot of the piano skills and knowledge could be applied to guitar. The piano and guitar can be applied to singing. I’ve been able to do the a cappella vocal work even though I’ve never had any formal vocal training.
Were you familiar with Penn Masala before you enrolled at Penn?
Yes. A few years before I came to Penn, my cousins in Chicago had seen Penn Masala in concert and they were telling me how great the group was. A couple of years after that, I realized that I wanted to apply to Penn and when I visited Penn I actually met a couple of the guys from Penn Masala. I even ended up writing about Penn Masala in my admissions essay, and sure enough, I made it into Penn and then into the group!
What are your responsibilities as president, both administratively and artistically?
Administratively I work closely with our business managers. They are responsible for finances, booking, and touring. I also work with our VP on all other administrative, non-financial matters. For example, we recently got our latest album up on iTunes—
That’s an arduous process.
Yeah, and I worked closely with him on that.
You must have nearly complete turnover every four years. How has Penn Masala been able to sustain itself and thrive for the past 12 years?
Our founders and the early classes in 1996, ’97, and ‘98 did a great job establishing the group on campus. The classes that followed did a great job establishing the group across the US. Now, many high-schoolers who are considering Penn already know about Penn Masala, and that definitely helps us.
And the turnover actually works to our advantage, because it allows us to bring in fresh ideas, fresh perspectives, and fresh music every year.
I would never have thought of that!
Yeah, I never thought about that either. It seems like every year we’re about to lose some really strong people and it’s easy to think, “Oh no, how can we keep going without these people?” But then we get new people and they’re different but great, and they bring in new ideas and tastes. It works and actually moves the group forward.
You’re set to join McKinsey as an analyst this summer, soon after you graduate. Once that happens, will you still be involved in Penn Masala?
Definitely. One thing we pride ourselves on is our alumni involvement. Every year at our spring show in Philadelphia, most of our alumni come back for the concert. Typically they come from all over the country. This time, at least three of them are coming in from India!
And aside from the spring concert, I talk with many of our alumni on a weekly basis, and some even more. When we have issues we’re dealing with, they are able to talk to us and tell us how they handled similar issues. They want to help because they still have an interest in keeping the group strong and successful.
This networking aspect extends even beyond matters related to Penn Masala. My sophomore year I called an alum I’d never even met—who had graduated eight years earlier—regarding a summer internship. He talked to me for several hours and gave me all the guidance I wanted.
At the end of your spring show, your alumni join you on-stage, right?
Yes, they join us for the last song, which is a fusion of the famous Bollywood songs “Mere Sapno Ki Rani” and “Mehndi Laga Ke Rakhna”. It’s a fusion piece from our first album, Awaaz. It’s funny how all the guys remember their parts even 10 years after they sang it.
Yes, the parts are probably in their muscle memories.
Exactly. We joke that we will always be able to do these parts even in our sleep. It’s pretty funny. Somehow all the current members end up getting pushed to the back of the stage! It gets bigger every year as we have more and more alumni. It’s a great experience to sing with everybody who’s ever been a part of the group. It’s an amazing feeling.
How many guys are on-stage at that point?
This time it was probably about 30 alumni plus 12 or 13 current members. So over 40 people crammed onto that stage! It’s so much fun.
Tell me about your audition process.
We have auditions in September, and sometimes again in January. We encourage anybody to audition, whether they have experience or not, whether they’re South Asian or not. People come in and do a couple of exercises and sing a song of their choice, then we narrow it down and do callbacks for a small subset of them. After we deliberate for hours, we choose some people from that group.
At the callbacks do they sing with one another or with current members so you can look at vocal blend and how they work with others?
Yes, at the callbacks we teach them some of our stuff and see how they work with learning in an a cappella environment, since many of them have never done a cappella work before. Even if they’ve done choir, that’s quite different from a cappella singing.
We also look for people who mesh well with the group, because we spend so much time together, not only in practice but also traveling, flying together, driving together, so we want to find people we get along well with.
In the studio, do you record all voices simultaneously, or one voice at a time, or something in between?
It depends. We get together before recording, and make a decision for each song as to whether we want to do it all together, or part by part, or maybe some parts solo, then other parts together. Our songs vary so much that there’s no way that one method would work for recording every song.
How is Penn Masala funded?
The group is funded by the shows we do. That money goes back into the production of our CDs and marketing of the group.
What do you enjoy the most about being in Penn Masala?
One thing I love is being able to apply my love for music in a way that honors my heritage. That’s amazing. As children of immigrants, we can find it easy to lose our heritage and difficult to maintain a balance between the two cultures. But Penn Masala allows me to use music to honor that heritage and find that balance, and that’s amazing.
The brotherhood that we form is so fulfilling too. The late-night practices, the touring, the creative process – all of these help us form a real bond. And even when we’re not practicing or touring we still hang out together. I live in a house with two other Masala members.
I also love the opportunity to perform in different cities, not only in the US, but also internationally. I have about 40 family members in Bombay who came to see us perform there, and it meant so much to me to be able to perform for them where they live.
What’s the composition of your audience ethnically and age-wise?
There’s been an interesting evolution there.
When the group started, the audience was probably 90% South Asian, and 75% college-age with others either older or high-school age. But as we’ve grown and gotten a reputation around the country, and as our repertoire has evolved, so has our audience. We still draw many college kids and some high school kids. But now we draw a lot more adults because we’re singing a lot of Bollywood songs that the adults love. And now 30 to 40% of our audience is not South Asian, and that’s really exciting.
Ranjit Souri lives in Chicago and is a columnist for India Currents magazine. He teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, creative non-fiction, and GMAT and LSAT prep. You can reach Ranjit at [email protected]