An acapella band formed in a US dorm room by a bunch of Indian students, who found fame with mashup renditions of Hindi-English songs sans any musical instruments, is now back with a countrywide multi-city tour.
Penn Masala, formed in the 90s by students at the University of Pennsylvania who had grown up listening to Bollywood classics has been in operation for about 20 years now with gigs that range from performing at the White House to recording music for the Hollywood movie, 'Pitch Perfect 2'.
"It's great to finally be back. We had seven incredible shows planned on our tour. Our Indian fans are fantastic and have given us unbelievable support over the years, and we're pulling out all the stops to make these shows truly memorable for them," the band's president Hari Ravi told PTI over email.
The band is set to perform its concluding gig at the Farzi Cafe here on May 28. It has already played in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Bengaluru.
Since they last toured India, three years ago Penn Masala has released two albums, 'Kaavish' and 'Resonance' which includes hit mashups like, 'Fix You/Ishq Bina' and 'Sunday Morning/ Main Rang Sharbaton Ka.'
"Resonance has actually been in the works since 2013 when Kaavish was released. We really wanted it to represent how far we've come as a group while celebrating our roots, especially coming into the group's 20th year of existence," says the band's music director Praveen Rajaguru.
"As a result, we've tried to incorporate some of the styles from the older albums while also trying to push the boundaries of what we can do with our sound. In essence, we've tried to stick with tradition but also innovate and try new things," says Rajaguru.
The album, released in December 2015, saw the artists exploring a lot of new styles.
While acapella versions of throwback Bollywood songs such as 'Yun Hi Chala Chal' and 'Tere Bina' were included, Rhythm and Blues genre was experimented with by doing 'Can't Feel My Face' by The Weeknd.
An original track, 'Reflection' was also penned with a jazzy pop feel.
"We tried experimenting with different sounds and effects. For example, the sounds that we used for percussion in 'La La La - Bang Bang' are sounds that haven't been done in a capella. We also added some interesting transitions between the songs, Stay - Tere Bina and Tum Hi Ho-Mad World," says Rajaguru.
While fusing such vast genres, picking songs and putting them in place proves a challenge, band members say they look for Hindi and English songs that are compatible in terms of melody and the mood.
The director says, "When choosing songs, we look for both
musical and lyrical compatibility. We look for similarities in terms of mood and melody as well as popularity and keys of the original songs. The hardest part of choosing a mix is definitely finding songs that fit together in terms of meaning,"
Brendan McManus, the band's marketing director says the process is "the most engaging and stimulating part of the process."
"We are challenged to find an arrangement that blends western and eastern cultures while staying unified musically and lyrically," he says
Apart from using not using a single music instrument in their songs, Penn Masala also keeps on changing its line-up every year, with new students hired through fresh auditions.
"We hold auditions each fall, and we ask prospective singers to prepare a verse and chorus of an English or Hindi song. We then invite a select few back for a second round of auditions, in which we look at factors such as vocal range, versatility of styles, pitch accuracy, and overall fit in the group. Based on what the group needs at the time, the group selects about three to four people each year," says Hari Ravi.
"Being in Penn Masala has its share of challenges. We are all still college students, so we try to balance everything the best we can. We understand that we would not have been where we are today without our alumni and their legacy, and we are immensely grateful for what they've done. For example, Prateek and Varun Sureka, two of our alumni, have been incredibly helpful to us in planning this tour," says Pranay Sharma.
The band's future projects include a new album besides releasing some of their smaller mashups, like 'Beautiful Soul - Jeena Jeena' and 'Imagine - Humko Manki Shakti Dena'.
The band says it even received a tweet from Shah Rukh Khan inviting it to do a cover of Jabra from his film, 'Fan.' A mashup of the song 'Uptown Funk' is also headed for a release soon on Facebook.
Talking about the band's inspiration in music, Pranay says, the goup's goal has to create music that captures the experience of growing up as Indian Americans and the fusion of Eastern and Western that comes with that.
"Most of us grew up watching movies and listening to music from Bollywood while also being exposed to Pop and R&B hits in the US, so combining these different musical influences felt natural to us," he says.
The group particularly loves Arijit Singh, Atif Aslam, Shreya Ghoshal, and directors such as Mithoon and loves to do A R Rahman's songs.
"We've admired how Rahman been able to adapt his style from classical roots to his incorporation of more modern elements such as EDM.
"That synthesis of styles is definitely something we try to emulate. We also love the classics and really hope to do a throwback Rafi or Kishore Kumar song in the near future," says Praveen.