A Cappella Review: Penn Masala Brings Indian A Cappella to MIT
Traditional Indian Styles Surpass Western Interpretations
By Mirat Shah
Sunday, Oct. 16, 2005
The Penn Masala a cappella concert held last Sunday in Kresge Auditorium was running on Indian time. That is to say, it was running late. Penn Masala is an Indian all-male a cappella group hailing from the University of Pennsylvania. They were founded in 1996 and since then have achieved a top 10 music video in India, songs on the “American Desi” soundtrack, and an international fan base. They performed at MIT in support of Asha for Education, a non-profit organization that works to improve basic education in India.
The hype from their minor celebrity status and the added suspense of a delayed beginning created extremely high expectations that Penn Masala unfortunately did not fully live up to. The group combines Hindi songs with English rock, rap, and R&B to create a unique sound. Many of the members view themselves as ABCDs (American-born confused Desis) and see their synthesis of musical styles as a manifestation of this.
The Indian portions of their arrangements were quite impressive and diverse. Some members of the group are classically trained Indian musicians and therefore their command of intonation, ornamentation, and complex rhythms in the traditional Indian style is amazing. This was exhibited in the song “Wedding Qawwali.” A qawwali is a traditional style that combines Muslim and Hindi influences to create a song of love and devotion. Some of the faster lines of this song contain so many syllables and are so difficult to sing that even a native speaker could not do it. Yet the Penn Masala soloist performed in an easy, beautiful sing song. The slower backdrop of the song was equally impressive with well-placed wavering and ornamentation creating a perfect effect of earnestness and yearning.
Penn Masala was more than competent at other Indian styles as well. Their opener featured a portion of the Hindi pop song “Tu Cheez Badi Hai Mast.” The soloist delivered, singing with the bright, sweet sound quality that often characterizes Bollywood music. Other highlights included Penn Masala’s slow, smooth, resonant renditions of the popular classics “Maa Tujhe Salam,” and “Mere Mehboob Mere Sanam.” The bhangra number “Saade Dil,” a portion of their closer, was exciting as well, with the driving inherent danceability of the song perfectly conveyed.
However, the English portions of Penn Masala’s arrangements were lackluster. The group seems to spend most their time mastering the Indian styles and then injecting Western music into their arrangements for fun. As a result, whenever they switched into an English song, they did not match the deliberate pronunciation or range of the original. This was glaringly pointed out in the “No Diggity” part of their opener and in their rendition of U2’s “One.”
An exception to this rule was Penn Masala’s interpretation of Sting’s “Desert Rose.” First of all, this song was impressive because it is in a minor key that is notoriously difficult for an a cappella group to sing. In addition, they interpreted the song instead of trying to emulate the original. The haunting Indian backbeats and harmonies are exquisite, and in the melody, the ornamentation and trilling that worked so well for Indian songs work here as well to recreate the mystery and exoticism of the desert.
If Penn Masala only used Western styles sparingly, it would be acceptable that they chose not to master them. However, as the night progressed, songs in English started to dominate. Their final set of three only contained one Hindi song. The rest of the set was filled with a gimmicky beatboxing routine, a “battle rap” with trite jokes about Indians living in America, and most disappointing of all a closer dominated by the repetitive Kevin Little song “Turn Me On.” The first two sets, though also populated with English songs, demonstrated Penn Masala’s exceptional ability to sing in Indian styles and left the audience craving more. Instead, we were sent home with Kevin Little ringing in our ears. The audience maybe received a sense of what the parents of these self-dubbed ABCDs feel. We wished that even as Penn Masala became more assimilated in American culture and music, they could hold onto and appreciate their Indian cultural and musical roots a little bit more.