The sky erupted in rain as the group of a-capella singers from the University of Pennsylvania, most of them of Indian origin, began their open air performance on the Skydeck in Bengaluru, May 25, 2017. That meant no microphones could be used for a group that uses nothing but their vocal chords to make music and song, and disappointing the thousand fans.
“Penn Masala” moved into the crowd and performed “up close and personal,” remembers Anvit Reddy, the business manager of the group. “That was the biggest highlight for me.”
Founded at the University of Pennsylvania in 1996, Penn Masala broke new ground pioneering South Asian-Western a-cappella in the U.S. As they ready to drop their 11th studio album Feb. 9, 2020, on all streaming sites, with updates on its Facebook, Instagram and YouTube pages, several members of the group spoke to Desi Talk.
Since the release of their first album, Awaaz, in 1999, Penn Masala brought out 10 well received albums, among them, The Brown Album (2005), Pehchaan (2007), On Detours (2009), Panoramic (2011), and Kaavish (2013), Resonance (2016), Yuva (2017), and an EP titled Vol 1 (2018).
“Penn Masala was born with the desire to create music that traversed traditional cultural boundaries and captured the experience of growing up with competing Eastern and Western cultures,” says the group in its publicity material. That sound took it all the way to the White House Oct. 14, 2009, during President Obama’s first Diwali celebrations.
Considering the ever-changing membership of a University a-cappella group, current members have no memories of the White House performance which brought them even more fame. The singers who performed at the White House were Sachin Amrute, Dhruv Batura, Sagar Bhatt, Ankit Dhir, Samuel Levenson, Tarub Mabud, Nikhil Marathe, Bharat Moudgil, Mahesh Murali, Manoj Racherla, Vinay Rao, Harshil Shukla, Akshat Vaidya and Bhuwan Vashisht. Obviously all of them have graduated since then.
Today, the cast consists of Sanjit Chakravarty, Dev Shaurya Singhal, Partha Rao, Atman Panigrahi, Anvit Reddy, Shaunak Kulkarni, Harsh Meswani, Aveek Ganguly, Anirudh Bikmal, Ajay Vasisht, Kushal Modi, Shrivats Kannan.
Penn Masala has maintained its quality through a tough and highly competitive grading for those it inducts. “That is one of our biggest challenges. We make sure we keep a high bar for those we choose,” Reddy says. Why no women? “The trouble is all of our arrangements are for voice registers of males,” for now, Reddy explains.
The group includes engineering and business majors, as well as those in humanities, whose grueling academic schedules make participating in a-cappella actually a relief. “It really takes away from the chaos of school,” says Kushal Modi, despite being a full-time commitment. They study on planes, and help each other with the studies, to make this possible, Modi says.
“We are very excited about the release of our new album. It’s the biggest thing we have been working on this past year,” says Sachit Gali. The name of album has yet to be made public when this correspondent spoke to them.
“In this album, more than in the past, we tried to focus on issues that affected us personally, such as a project on mental health, our own identity as South Asians, and highlighting South Asian dance – issues that resonate,” said Modi.
Penn Masala claims it is the “first group in the world to bring the sounds of the Indian subcontinent to a cappella” with fans of diverse backgrounds and cultures, which have in turn influenced their sound.
Over the past 24 years, apart from the studio albums and an EP; the group has also written, arranged, and produced several original compositions.
Apart from the White House, Penn Masala has performed at Indian International Film Academy Awards in Tampa, and at sold-out shows at various universities across the United States each semester, and internationally in the United Kingdom, Canada, and India.
In India, it performed at Star Screen Awards, Zee Music Awards, shared the stage with the likes of legends A.R. Rahman, Ayushmann Khurrana, Arijit Singh, and singers like Jonita Gandhi and Benny Dayal.
The group has performed for business tycoons Mukesh Ambani and Lakshmi Mittal, cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, Hollywood-Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, United Nations former Secretary General Ban-Ki-Moon, and President Barack Obama. The group was featured in the feature film Pitch Perfect 2, released in May 2015.
“Our next album represents the next stage in Masala’s musical journey,” the group says. “Through groundbreaking mashups, intricate arrangements, and our signature a cappella sound, we hope to draw focus to important issues of our identity while challenging ourselves to push new musical frontiers,” Penn Masala adds.