By Samir Shukla
Penn Masala has a knack for expanding the human voice. Their musical modus operandi? It is A Capella, where singers perform without musical instruments. Their voices are the instruments.
Penn Masala, world's first South Asian A Cappella group, was birthed on the campus of U Penn in 1996. All members are students at University of Pennsylvania. They fuse their voices into classic and contemporary songs from India and English pop and render something wholly new. Cultural boundaries are blurred while embarking on new musical adventures of South Asian-Western fusion.
Shaunak Kulkarni, current group president, explained how the group picks songs to work and record. They have a committee. Ok, so that sounds a bit board room for a musical group, but it makes sense and is an effective way to select songs for an outfit that has rotating members as they graduate and new ones are added year to year. They are essentially a long running group with rotating singers.
Kulkarni was born in California but spent a decade in Pune, India, Most members are born in the USA but have a distinct connection with their South Asian, mostly Indian, heritage. So, the committee, says Kulkarni, chooses the songs from the favorites and suggestions brought to the meetings by members. These songs are then worked by the members with a music director, who is also a member of the group, to caress into new arrangements. The organization consists of a president, music director and business manager, keeping the workings of the ensemble flowing smoothly.
These positions change as members graduate and others join. Most are undergrads with a few grad students. The group generally holds auditions at the beginning of the fall semester, says Kulkarni, but may hold more in spring if any needed changes are needed to the ensemble.
Penn Masala's latest songs are gathered in the new recording Musafir (traveler).
The album is full of warm renditions of popular songs blending with hits from the Indian Subcontinent.
There are some dramatic songs mixing English lyrics that segue into Bollywood songs. Coldplay's “Everglow" and the Hindi song “Kaise Mujhe (feat. Benny Dayal)" from the film Ghajini seem made for each other when the voices fluidly merge them. Another example, Adele's “When We Were Young" walking hand in hand with “Tera Yaar Hoon Main."
Their version of "Ae Watan" practically moistens the eyes when the group vocalizes the patriotic song from the soundtrack of the 2018 Indian feature film Raazi. It's quite riveting.
There are over a dozen such renditions in Musafir.
The closing track, “United By Music - A Desi Regional Medley," is a wonderful example of India's diverse languages, cultures, and religious traditions brought together into one. The vocals are formidable and the familiarity of the chosen songs makes it immediately identifiable. It's a showcase of varied Indian languages that have a common foundation and heritage. The track, along with others, address social and identity issues. Each song on the album creates a unique mood with innovative and eclectic arrangements.
Penn Masala has released 10 full-length studio albums since their inception. They have toured around the world, including India. Musafir is available on major streaming services.
More details and current tour dates, visit www.PennMasala.com.
By Samir Shukla
Decision time for Democrats
The reckoning for the dozen Democrats still running for their party's nomination to take on President Trump is now here. The February Fab Four - Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, and South Carolina - primaries and caucuses will winnow out the field further. The January Democratic debate featured six candidates. The DNC announced after that debate that any candidate receiving at least one delegate in Iowa will qualify for the New Hampshire debate in February. This gives couple more of the candidates a chance to elbow into that debate.
The real reckoning will happen the first week of March. I believe the race will be down to a couple, maybe three, contenders by the end of Super Tuesday or at the least by the end of March.
The biggest reckoning will be for hard progressives to decide between Sanders and Warren. The expected and inevitable conflict between Warren and Sanders has begun and is playing out in social media. Let's face it. They are essentially the same candidate, albeit Warren is more malleable. The trick will be for each to not damage the other too much after one is left standing.
Could this be the year a woman is elected? Only two of the three remaining women have a shot at the nomination. Klobuchar and Warren present two different views of Democratic politics. In my analysis Klobuchar is stronger in taking on Trump, mainly because many moderate and fiscally conservative Democrats will feel more comfortable with her. Warren would alienate a good bunch of them. Of course, that's a discussion for later, the first matter at hand is can either of them knock the boys out of contention?
A twist on NC's gubernatorial race
Here's an interesting note on North Carolina's governor race. Democratic Governor Roy Cooper is running again and has one primary opponent; Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest is running for Governor's office and has one primary opponent. Both will likely win their party's nomination. The interesting thing is that according to Ballotpedia, “Seventeen states elect their governor and lieutenant governor separately, and currently three of them—Louisiana, North Carolina, and Vermont— have a lieutenant governor of a different party from the governor. Two of those states are holding elections for governor this year and both may require that the leading candidates balance working side-by-side on a day-to-day basis while battling one another on the campaign trail. This year, North Carolina and Vermont may see the incumbent governor face the state's incumbent lieutenant governor in the general election."
Incidentally, Ballotpedia (www.BallotPedia.org) is a wonderful source of information that is updated daily. It is easy to navigate, and their non-partisan take on all the races and candidates is refreshing and welcome.
A continuing assignment
I propose some homework. It's simple. Create a sweet marmalade of facts and spread it far and wide. The tough part is that this should also be done when your own candidate is clearly spewing B.S.; add this marmalade to your own ideology. People who complain about media the loudest are seemingly the ones that don't spend the time to visit multiple sources, sort out facts, and separate opinion from researched news. It's not easy trying to dislodge ideologically obtuse folks sequestered in their preferred spin zones. In moments of heated arguments, bring out that sweet marmalade, and watch the heat subside just a little bit. No matter how entrenched someone is in their bias, this technique can have a mellowing effect.
There are numerous reliable fact-checking sites (I've listed some below and will post more), including major media organizations that have their own fact check pages. When a spurious claim is made, do your own fact checking. It's not that hard. It takes a little bit of an effort. In this content-saturated world we are now in, it is even more important to find the truth via multiple sources. Media bashing is easy and for the lazy. The reality is everything today is “media." There are plenty of news organizations that still do the hard work of gathering and dissemination of information.
We all have our ideologies, but don't let emotions of the moment hijack your common sense and reason. Truth generally wins in the end. Let's do our homework in the coming months and spread that marmalade as needed.
Fact check sites:
Notable Election 2020 Dates:
February 7: Democratic debate in Manchester, N.H (ABC News, WMUR at St. Anselm College)
February 11: New Hampshire Primaries
February 19: Democratic debate in Las Vegas (NBC News, MSNBC and The Nevada Independent)
February 22: Nevada Democratic Caucuses
February 25: Democratic debate in Charleston, SC (CBS News, Congressional Black Caucus Institute and Twitter at the Gaillard Center)
February 29: South Carolina Democratic Primary
March 3: Super Tuesday. Several states, including North Carolina and Virginia hold primaries.
March 24: Georgia primaries
April 28: Maryland primaries
By Samir Shukla
Director Kabir khan, (Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Ek Tha Tiger) has deftly woven true historical events into a five-part limited series called The Forgotten Army - Azaadi Ke Liye, starring Sunny Kaushal and Sharvari alongside Rohit Choudhary, Karanvir Malhotra, M. K. Raina, R. Badree, TJ Bhanu, and Shruti Seth.
The Indian National Army (INA) was organized out of England's defeat in Singapore at the hands of the Japanese army during WWII. The legendary and controversial leader Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose forged this army for his ultimate goal, India's independence. In the battle at Singapore, after the British soldiers retreated, the remaining thousands of Indian soldiers serving under the British were inspired by Bose to join the Indian National Army. The Japanese army had captured the Indians along with the British soldiers. The Japanese, seeking victory over the British, made an alliance with Bose and the INA was created. Bose's alliances with Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany are a controversial aspect of his legacy, but he is revered in India for his defiant patriotism and fight for independence, which for him was to be achieved by any means.
This true story is brought to life in the film with stirring visual effects and battles, along with showcasing the dedication as well as doubts of the soldiers. The INA fights and marches all the way to India's border near Burma (Myanmar) where it is finally subdued by the British and eventual Japanese retreat. The INA was also unique in that it had the first ever women infantry regiment. The fighters of INA fought against impossible odds but never forgot their chant “Challo Dilli" (Let's go to Delhi), to free their country from British colonialism.
Khan's gripping series tells this tale of INA's travails fighting with their last patriotic breaths against the British army and their struggle to free India. Most of the survivors of this army and their stories have gotten lost to history; The Forgotten Army is an apt title that retells their story. The series also showcases the love story between two soldiers - the protagonists Sodhi (Kaushal) and Maya (Sharvari), tapping into poignant questions about identity, the idea of a motherland and the human costs of fighting for freedom and independence. Some of the INA fighters were Indians living in Singapore and had never been to India, but were inspired by Bose to join the patriotic fight.
Khan said of the film, “Being the first script I've ever written, The Forgotten Army – Azaadi Ke Liye is a project I am very passionate about. The journey of these soldiers of the INA is a story that needs to be told and it has taken several years of extensive research to gather fragmented memories of these incredibly brave men and women who fought so selflessly for India's independence. This project has been a labor of love – from custom creating hundreds of bicycles from the 1940s, to recreating the Singapore of that era, to finding just the right cast to give life to these characters, our only effort has been to truly represent the journey of these fiercely brave men and women to whom we owe our freedom."
I don't quite get why this needed to be a series of short episodes. It would have made a fine two and a half hour movie. Veteran composer Pritam composed the music for the film along with the title song “Azaadi Ke Liye."
The Forgotten Army - Azaadi Ke Liye is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
By Samir Shukla
Evolution is such a magically slow and incremental thing. Human lifetimes are too short to notice this magic. In order to alleviate this unfathomable unknown, we have created mystical gods and goddesses, prophets, swamis and messiahs, and myriad creation myths.
We live in an age where incremental evolution, or slow changes made by or imposed upon humans in social, political, and historical realms, seem like anathema. Everyone has an opinion or solution that will solve problems instantly. Everyone wants everything instantly. Put a “Stop Racism" bumper sticker on your car and presto racism is gone. Build a wall on the border and illegal migration will go away.
The reality is that social change is very slow, it is generational. Revolutions generally burn out in wisps of choking smoke. There's no pixie dust to wipe out racism, inequality, sexism…poof a pinch of the magic stuff and it's gone. It doesn't work that way. It takes a community of humans and change agents making sacrifices to infuse justice into the systems. It is slow, but effective.
Youngsters looking for revolution are a feisty bunch. But real change occurs slowly, incrementally. Human behavior doesn't swing on a dime. Deeply held beliefs, perceptions, and prejudices are not easily changed. But they can be softened a bit via soft power and subtle persuasion. Not by telling them to do something, but by showing them something positive. Creating options and choices are the way to sway others. Don't try to change someone, engage someone. Engagement creates a positivity swap, if you will, which even in small doses pulls people forward.
Revolution lies in the wings of a butterfly, not in the fires of torches or metals of bullets. Everyone complains about the divisiveness that is plaguing the country and the world. We must step back and assess what has worked, what needs to be reworked, and work on needed changes. That's always been the way forward.
The rapid march of technology will render vast amounts of current jobs and occupations unnecessary. Automation will reign. Artificial Intelligence will reign. We will need fewer humans to run the planet precisely when the human population keeps expanding. It will mean realigning our aspirations, needs and economic systems. What matters is what we do to ameliorate the inevitable forces and work out solutions.
Remove an essential brick from a rickety wall and the whole thing tumbles down. Learn how to make bricks and you build foundations.
By Samir Shukla
A Solution to Political Pollution
It's a lovely number, this incoming fresh year. 2020. This number gives a sense of perfect vision, calm and order. Of course contemporary politics are not exactly ordered or calm. They are disjointed, emotionally charged, physically draining and full of twists and turns. There is a concept, a word, where we can approach some sort of orderly calmness. That concept, a simple tool to tap into in times of conflict and dissonance, is called reason. The quiet voices of reason can douse the fires of political partisanship and tribalism, and help get things done. Of course, by reason I mean in the sense where logic and facts matter. Well, that's common sense, you may say. What I mean is the ability to put aside biases in heated moments and put your adult hat on.
It requires concerted effort.
In the madness of this presidential election year, the strong middle, the backbone of America has to come to the rescue. Join the reasoned masses and help put the fake news, fake memes, and fake righteousness and bravado of liars and noisemakers back into their holes.
The loudmouths on the right and the left are in the minority. They are like the proverbial barking dogs that lack real bite and can be subdued, but only when the reasoned folks insert truthfulness into chaos.
It's funny how we are becoming more tribal, but at times, especially during sporting events and music concerts, we untangle our usual tribalism and weave a different tone. Sports fans high-fiving each other every time their team scores, everyone dancing and singing along to a popular song during concerts, these folks maybe politically opposite, but in that moment, after a slam dunk, or a soaring guitar solo, the tribes intermingle. They become one. This is the real human community, instilled with a natural sense of camaraderie. A shared joy. This similar convergence happens in moments of national tragedy. A shared pain.
Political ideologies vanish when peoples merge in celebration. They may again become bitter partisans as soon as they walk out, but in that moment of communal gathering, differences melt away. This is worth replicating in daily lives.
Fellow travelers on the ship called reason take a deep breath and welcome the fresh year. There will be maddeningly distorted political ads everywhere as we inch toward Election Day, incessant robocalls, and social media fisticuffs galore. The adults in the room will have to sprinkle the cooling drops of truth and facts to keep those partisan fires from getting out of control, which can consume individuals, destroy long term friendships and unhinge families. It is just politics folks; we still share our joys and our pains.
Let's create invisible parties of logicians, Reasoncrats or Reasonpublicans, if you will, and yes, we still have our personal ideologies, but we can be the moderation sorely needed for the sake of our neighborhoods, towns, and country.