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.