Sounds of a capella

Two decades, nine studio albums and performances in various settings ranging from the White House to Hollywood movie Pitch Perfect 2 — this is the story of Penn Masala, a capella group founded in 1996 at the University of Pennsylvania, United States. Born with the desire to create music that traverses traditional cultural boundaries, the group explores the intersection of Western and Indian music as a means of celebrating the two unique cultures that its members grew up with.

The South Asian music group, which has also performed at the Indian International Film Academy (IIFA) Awards, is currently touring India, and recently performed in the city.

Explaining their music, member Praveen Rajaguru says, “A capella music is a music created only through voices. Through four different vocal parts (bass, baritone, tenor 1, tenor 2) and vocal percussion, we span the full range of sounds of a music group. In order to decide on the beats and rhythms for songs, we carefully listen to the originals and try to replicate what we hear, incorporating our own unique twists and tastes.”

However, a lot of thought process goes behind selecting a song as Rajaguru says various factors, including musical fit, lyrical fit, and audience appeal are considered.

“We try to unify our albums and content under a style that has come to define Penn Masala, working extremely hard to produce unique songs that truly blend East and West. No particular kind of songs really suit us best as we have a diverse pool of lead talent, both English and Hindi. However, we try to capitalise on the strengths of lead singers as we craft new music,” he tells Metrolife.

The group, which has come to India four times till date, has sung songs like Tonight (I’m Lovin’ You)-Dilliwaali Girlfriend; It Will Rain-Piya O Re Piya; Tu Aashiqui Hai; Saade Dil Te-Turn Me On; Main Hoon Na-I’ll Be There among others. Their nine studio albums include Awaaz, Brown Album, Kaavish and Resonance.

“We released our latest album, Resonance, this past winter, so many of the songs we are performing for this tour are from the album. Besides that, we recently debuted a new song, Phir Le Aaya Dil, which will likely be on our next album; and we have been performing it specifically for our India tour,” says Brendan McManus, a member.

But how challenging is to maintain a group which has new members joining every year?
“This constant turnover presents a unique challenge for the group, but it’s one that we’ve developed a system for over the years. There is a large repertoire of music ranging from the group’s inception to our most recent album, and each year the older members make sure to pass down what they know. This wouldn’t be possible without the strong sense of brotherhood we share, which exists in large part because of several traditions dating back to the group’s beginnings,” explains Hari Ravi, and adds that they also have alumni who are very engaged and always eager to help.

Adding, McManus says that each year new members are roped in through an audition process. “Each member of Masala is key in reaching out to underclassmen (freshers) and encouraging them to audition. After joining, new members have a great amount of responsibility early on as they learn the full repertoire of the group prior to the semester’s tour. Over time, they are exposed to different facets of the group’s operations and traditions, until they become full members,” he says.

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