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UPenn group spices up college a cappella scene with Hindi songs

UPenn group spices up college a cappella scene with Hindi songs

Penn Masala is not exactly another boy band, but you wouldn't know it from some of the fan postings on their Web site:
"You guys are so amazing!!!!!!! I love all your songs! Ya'll really need to come perform in Houston."
"You guys should really come to Boston. You'd love the city and I KNOW we'd love you."
"You guys are awesome ... I have a crush on RICKY!"
With their soulful harmonies and youthful good looks, the Hindi a cappella group from the University of Pennsylvania has won a small but loyal worldwide following. The way they easily skip between Sting's "Desert Rose" and a Bollywood cover tune seems to resonate with South Asians who grew up in bicultural households.
"They pretty much provide the best of both worlds for South Asians growing up in America," said Sherene Joseph, 20, a fan and Penn sophomore.
Using their voices to mimic the sound of instruments, Penn Masala can combine an arrangement of U2's "With or Without You" with the song "Mere Mehboob Mere Sanam" from the 1998 Hindi movie "Duplicate," or Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" with "Na Tum Jano Na Hum" from the 2000 Hindi movie "Kaho Na Pyaar Hai."
"They personify fusion in every sense of the word," said Rita Bagai, a Penn senior. "Every song they take, they add their own twist and flavor to it."
Penn Masala _ the word means "spice" in Hindi _ got its start in a dorm room in 1996. Though the members change from year to year, the group's reputation has led to international performances, a song on the soundtrack for the 2001 movie "American Desi," and four albums. Their fifth album, "Pehchaan," which means "identity," is slated for release next month.
The group has become so well known in some South Asian-American circles that Samir Sheth, now a member, had heard of it while growing up the son of Indian immigrants in St. Joseph, Missouri.
Penn Masala was the reason Sheth applied to the Ivy League school, writing about the group in his application essay.
"When I got in (to Penn Masala), it was even better than I thought it was going to be," said Sheth, 21. "You just feel like you're hanging out with your friends, doing what you enjoy."
Sheth was one of the lucky ones. About 50 to 100 people try out each year, and only two or three are chosen, said group president Jay Patel. The group has anywhere from 10 to 17 members in a given year. Most are either Indians or Americans of Indian descent, though members stress they accept anyone with the right voice and an interest in the music.
Universities have proved fertile ground for a cappella groups. There are now hundreds across the country, each with its own musical personality.
"The groups have certainly been described as singing fraternities," said Mark Wittman, a member of one of the most famous, the Yale Whiffenpoofs, a group founded in 1909. "It's a huge social outlet on a lot of college campuses."
Other Hindi a cappella groups have surfaced since Penn Masala was created, including ones at Stanford, the University of California and Cornell. But Penn Masala, now in its 11th year, is the acknowledged trailblazer.
Their ethnic music is primarily Hindi, though members are branching into Punjabi, Tamil and Arabic, reflecting the backgrounds of the current group, said member Srikant Rao, 21. They are also adding more original songs to their repertoire.
Fans say Penn Masala also attracts listeners from other cultures.
"I really believe that they have a universal appeal," said Joseph, who grew up in an Indian household in New Jersey. "You're listening to really talented artists sing."
But staying true to their roots is what's most important. Members who went on a trip last year to India, where they performed one show in Mumbai and two in Calcutta, say it was extremely rewarding.
They noted, however, that a cappella performance was so foreign to Indians that audiences initially didn't believe the group used no instruments. So members created a skit to show how sounds are layered to create the song.
"A cappella is definitely a new concept for people in India," said Patel, a 21-year-old senior from Allentown. "There was definitely a lot of buzz ... If it does take off there, it would be really cool."
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http://www.pennmasala.com


Updated : 2021-10-20 12:33 GMT+08:00