'Male voices blend a little bit better'
“Everyone in the group is a college student and every year, we have two to three members leaving and a few joining. Each year, our group really takes on a new complexion, while obviously trying to maintain the legacy that’s been passed down,” explains Sam Levenson, the only non-Asian in the group.
One could wonder if the overall sound of the group gets diluted with the yearly shuffling of members. Dhruv Maheshwari, one of the members, agrees that while it is challenging to figure out what set sounds best with the current members, it has its own rewards.
“The group gets to evolve a lot. A lot of times, when you have the same people, you restrict yourself. But when you have changes in the line up, it brings in new voices, new musical interests and different backgrounds in terms of training. It helps the sound to keep improving,” he shares.
Presently comprising 11 members, who sing, harmonise, create melodies and even beatbox, it has always been and will continue to be an all-male group. Ashwin Muthiah justifies this saying, “We feel that male voices blend a little bit better together. Besides, we started as a brotherhood and function as one. So we wanted to keep it that way.”
In fact, it’s such a tightly knit fraternity that there’s even something called ‘Penn Masala Reunions’ that take place.
“Every fall, alumni from Penn Masala come back to Philadelphia to carry on the tradition of the group and tell lots of stories about the early years. It’s a great time for some of the younger members to interact with the senior alumni.
It’s really cool because some of them have kids already. I mean, we’re talking about a 16-year-old legacy!” notes Ram Narayan, who will be graduating out of the university and the group this year.
In the many chapters of the group’s long history, their biggest achievement has been performing for President Barack Obama in 2009. It was the first ever Diwali celebration in the White House, which coincided with the signing of the White House initiative on Asian-Americans and Pacific islanders.
Sam, one of the only remaining members from that time, speaks of his experience. “It was really cool – we performed in the East Room, which is where the President gives all his television addresses. There was an audience of around 60 distinguished guests and we sang Aicha, which is one of our most multi-cultural songs, incorporating Hindi, Arabic and English. We even had the opportunity of meeting Obama, shaking his hand and taking a photo with him,” he recalls.
Since its formation in 1996, the group has released seven albums, with the next one already on its way.
“In the eighth album, we’re trying to incorporate a lot of regional music and dialects into our arrangements and increasing their complexity,” wraps up Anil Chitrapu, adding that there will be more diversity in terms of languages and styles than ever before.