Originally published in the Hindu Friday Review Bangalore edition on January 18th
American-Indian a cappella group Penn Masala takes the definition of a travelling band to an entirely different level. The group consists of 12 members, all students from the University Of Pennsylvania. Not only can the group boast of touring and performing in the US, UK, Canada and of course, India, but also playing to packed crowds, as opposed to the empty bars. They recently completed their India-wide five city tour, making stops at Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai, New Delhi and Pune.
“We’ve been planning this tour for the past 3-4 months. It’s been three years since our last trip to India and we decided that we wanted to reconnect with audiences in India. The shows have been sold out at every city we’ve been to so far (Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad),” say the group members, all of whom, with the exception of Sam Levenson, are Indian-Americans based out of Philadelphia, where the University of Pennsylvania campus is located.
The other group members presently include Varshil Patel, Akshat Vaidya, Anil Chitrapu, Ashwin Muthiah, Chetan Khanna, Prashant Ramesh, Dhruv Maheshwari, Ram Narayan, Dilip Rajan, Rohan Murthy and Akiff Premjee. It gets even more interesting that the members are replaced via campus auditions after they graduate. Although an unstable line-up is never usually a good thing, Penn Masala seems to have used it to their advantage, surviving for over 16 years with seven albums to their name. “Every year our seniors graduate and the following year we recruit freshmen to take their place. The oldest members of the group are Akshat Vaidya and Sam Levenson, both of whom have been in the group for 4 years; they will both be graduating in May 2013,” members say.
On their India tour this month, Penn Masala has had the chance to interact with NGOs, and a shoot a music video, despite their hectic tour schedule. They note how the tour has been very fulfilling, and comes right in time before their eighth studio album, due in March. They incorporate mostly Hindustani classical influences to their music, adding a hint of pop, hip-hop and R&B to the mix in predominantly English and Hindi lyrics. “The toughest part of starting out was the novelty of South Asian a cappella. It had never been done prior to our founding in 1996 and so the founders were faced with the challenges of creating an innovative genre from scratch and teaching others about their music,” the group says.
One quirk the group likes to add into their performances, according to members, is playing around with set list: “We try our best to cater our set list for the shows to the demographics of the crowd. For instance, we incorporated a bit of Telugu for the show last night in Hyderabad.”
All this Indian-ness for Levenson, the only non-Indian member of the group, has left him loving the Indian tour. “I’m loving it! The food is great, the audiences are amazing, and this is the first time I’m visiting Bangalore and Pune. I’ve also been practicing my Hindi a bit (mostly learning how to say ‘I don’t know Hindi’ in Hindi). As for being surrounded by Indians, I am very immersed in Indian culture, but I have a pretty diverse group of friends,” says Levenson.
As for their next move, Penn Masala says, “Our next album will be out in March of this year. It holds in store original songs, innovative arrangements, more South Asian languages, and a diverse range of genres for our covers.”