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Penn Masala Return To India This January

Fusion a cappella group will debut songs from their upcoming album as part of five-city India tour

Rolling Stone India Dec 27, 2012
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Penn Masala

The last time Hindi a cappella group Penn Masala performed at Hard Rock Café, Mumbai in 2009, the audience survived a mini stampede. The all-male group has no doubt that their upcoming five-city tour of India will be as packed even though this will be Penn Masala’s fourth visit to India. Every year, the evolving 12-piece band comprising University of Pennsylvania undergrads features a new line-up with the current batch of students. “In fact, I’ve been to India before. I was in the first year of my undergrad then, when we last performed in India. Only two of us in the current lineup [including music director Akshat Vaidya] were part of the 2009 band,” says Sam Levenson.  What is it that draws a crowd to a group that prides itself on Bollywood covers? Sheer nostalgia and the thrill of being able to sing along word for word. 

Touted to be the world’s first Hindi a cappella group, Penn Masala started out as a vocal experiment in a freshman dorm in 1996. Through the years, the band has released seven full-length albums, but a bulk of their work fuses American pop hits with Bollywood tracks. “A majority of our music includes covers simply because it takes less time to create. Of late, we have been more focused on originals and composing and arranging our material,” says Levenson. New York-based Hindi pop rock band Goldspot’s frontman Siddhartha Khosla learnt the ropes of music arrangements, harmony and scoring in college when he took on the role of Penn Masala’s first music director.

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Traditionally, Penn Masala’s song arrangements are in two parts so as to allow them to open with a Hindi song and later fuse it with an English track or vice versa. But the group now sees them making alterations to this format. “We have actually been experimenting recently with new and more complex ways of structuring our compositions,” says Levenson. Their latest mix will see the boys mix vocals of Coldplay’s “Fix You” with 1999 film Taal’s “Ishq Bina” by singing the two simultaneously.

Even though most of the group members may not pursue music professionally after college, they continue playing their parts as mentors to the new batch. “The ever-changing lineup can be a challenge. One way to overcome the logistical challenge of having different people every year is by re-educating the group. We get together to reminisce and set a mission for the group in the coming year,” says Levenson. The college a cappella group follows a strict scanning process to recruit new members. The members must have a formal vocal training [added points for those with Carnatic or Hindustani classical training], be enthusiastic about South Asian music and be equally aware of the rapidly changing music scene in India. “Some members are fans of Kishore Kumar or Sonu Nigam, while others like Pakistani acts like Jal and Strings,” says Levenson. The group may sing in Indian languages, but membership is not restricted to students of South Asian descent. Levenson, who is currently the only member of non Asian descent, is a Jewish American from Boston. The group however is exclusively for male students. “A lot of groups do mixed format a cappella, but I think we found from the beginning that there was a  distinct sound that took shape when all male voices came together to bring a four part harmony . Also, we’ve been doing it for 16 years and it’s got us a lot of success, so we are sticking with it for that reason,” he adds.

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The band, which performed for Obama at the White House in 2009 and whose songs have made it to the soundtrack of films like American Desi, continue to test their vocal limits as they imitate the sound of drum and deep bass. About their upcoming India tour, they are sure that even those who’ve seen Penn Masala before will have a lot to look forward to. Levenson promises an energetic set that will include songs from their upcoming album, regulars such as “Aisha” and “Aap Jaisa Koi” and also have some break-dance thrown in. Now, that’s what we’d call a masala-packed show.


Penn Masala Tour Dates:

Hard Rock Café, Mumbai ”” January 4th

Hard Rock Café, Pune ”” January 6th

Hard Rock Café, Hyderabad ”“ January 9th

Hard Rock Café, Bengaluru ”“ January 10th

Hard Rock Café, Delhi ”“ January 11th

Penn Masala will perform at Hard Rock Café outlets in India between January 4th and January 11th 2013. Ticket price: Rs 1,500 [Rs 750 cover].

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