I

t’s a breezy evening in March, and hundreds of college students are growing restless before the heavy oak doors of University of Pennsylvania’s Irvine Auditorium. There might be an hour to go before showtime, but this crowd isn’t interested in taking chances.

So what’s all the hype about? Homegrown a capella sensation Penn Masala is performing its last concert of the school year, and—given the first-come, first-served arrangements—seating is at a premium.

Behind smudged-glass window paneling, the ticket office is quickly becoming a blur of activity.

Penn junior Eisha Udeshi has volunteered to help out tonight. Friends with the men of Masala, Udeshi doesn’t mind giving up her Saturday night to support the show. Struggling to keep up with a steadily lengthening line of anxious fans, Eisha periodically adjusts her slippery dupatta and focuses on keeping the stacked envelopes of money in order.

The men of Penn Masala artfully juggle the “American” (khakis and snappy soca rhythms) and the “Indian” (kurtas and qawwalis) with a playful, loose ease.

Like most other Penn Masala shows, this one has just sold out, and Udeshi has the unpleasant task of informing those still waiting in line. Even though the auditorium can seat about 1,200 people, no one is surprised. Around here, the men of Penn Masala are full-fledged celebrities—complete with their own rock-star following.

Something Like a Phenomenon

As the world’s very first Hindi a cappella group, Masala got its modest start in a small freshman dorm room. It was 1996, and four desi underclassmen decided they wanted a college performance group to call their own. “At that point, there were no other South Asian a cappella groups,” says current Penn Masala president Jay Patel. “It was a big step to be the first.”

The view from backstage as Penn Masala performs.
The view from backstage as Penn Masala performs to the sold-out crowd.

Fast forward three years, and the group had inked record deals in the United Kingdom and India. Its first music video for the song “Chamak Chalo” made its top 10 debut on MTV India. The following year, the men found themselves in New York City, entertaining at the Bollywood Awards held in Nassau Coliseum. By then, Penn Masala was everywhere; its tunes featured on indie film soundtracks, BBC radio and belted out on stages from Los Angeles to Boston.

Today, with five records to its credit, Masala’s fan base continues to grow. As a college a cappella group, membership is rolling, and fresh faces are recruited to replace graduating seniors. But even though the names might change each year, the group’s popularity just keeps growing.

Penn Masala maintains a refreshingly original ability to knit together American and Indian styles and sounds. The result is distinctive; an elastic, catchy set of numbers that links unexpected beats and lyrics, creating a vibe that is sometimes surprising and always compelling. The men artfully juggle the “American” (khakis and snappy soca rhythms) and the “Indian” (kurtas and qawwalis) with a playful, loose ease.

A few months have passed since Penn Masala’s tenth anniversary—and there is still plenty to celebrate.

The Rajas of Rhythm

For a decade, Penn Masala has been the most innovative and recognizable desi a cappella group in the world. And after four records, their latest release, The Brown Album, doesn’t disappoint. Brown offers fans Masala’s trademark mix of crooning, satin-pillow ballads and upbeat hip-pop tracks you can groove to before a night on the town. Songs (like the remix “Saade Dil Te / Turn Me On”) hew to the desi college musical tradition of mixing sunny Bollywood beats with contemporary American hip hop. The Brown Album is currently streaming online at PennMasala.com.

While touring India recently, Masala was featured on radio stations from Kolkata to Mumbai, even squeezing in a guest appearance on Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, the Subcontinent’s answer to American Idol. The Indian public was instantly enamored. “It was amazing,” says Patel of Allentown, Pennsylvania. “It proved to us that although India isn’t really familiar with a cappella, there is definitely a market there for this type of music.”

With a growing, global cadre of loyal fans in tow, Masala eyes the future; but for now, it has no plans to graduate and move off-campus.

“We’ve each had such a great time that it’s important for us the group remains here,” says current musical director Srikant Rao. “When we leave, we want others to experience this as well.” Now in his senior year of college, Rao wants to see Masala live on, and he hopes it can help other Indian American students find their voice, too.

From One Generation to the Next

While Penn Masala is interested in producing quality music, the group seems equally invested in promoting a solid brand of brotherhood. Its members are offered a strong social network and sense of community—benefits that don’t expire at graduation. Upperclassmen and alumni, a handful of whom continue to pursue music as solo artists, are committed to Masala and serve as hands-on mentors. It is a responsibility they don’t take lightly.

The annual show, like this one at Irvine Auditorium, manages to bring most of the alumni back. Himanshu Sheth, a founding member of Penn Masala, is in town from New York City where he is now an investment banker for Goldman Sachs. “I love to come back and witness the progress of the group. I feel like the music, creativity and overall artistry keeps improving every year,” he says. The chance to catch up with fellow alumni is also something Sheth looks forward to. “We are scattered around the globe,” he says. “All of us take tremendous pride in this group and its progress over the years. Each of us contributed to its development at various stages and it is very rewarding to see how far the group has come.”

Current members like Rao love seeing the alumni return each year. “It means more than I can explain,” he says. “When everyone gets together it’s like they never left the group. They have Masala experiences to teach me about, they have life experiences, career advice…whatever it is, they’re there.”

With a growing, global cadre of loyal fans in tow, Masala eyes the future; but for now, it has no plans to graduate and move off-campus.

More recently, Penn Masala has formalized a previously informal mentoring process where alumni “would advise younger members on career issues,” says Sheth. The newly established association will also establish an endowment and “deal with intellectual property and other issues.”

The group warms up.
The group warms up.

Like most of their desi peers, the men of Masala are all first-in-the-family to attend an American college as undergraduates. Immigrant parents of the so-called “second generation” arrived from South Asia in the 1970s—largely in response to this nation’s call for skilled professionals. Now, they watch on as their children decide how best to marry Indian tradition with American sensibility. The result is an often complex, changing sense of shared cultural identity; one that, much like the songs of Penn Masala, richly layers elements of global style, rhythm, and cool. As their ethnic, national and even racial loyalties undergo constant, shifting reconstitution it seems evident that these youths are making history as the remix generation.

For a community still struggling under the weight of the “model minority” label, Penn Masala has done much to challenge stereotypes. The men embody what it means to be hip, young and desi in America today. Now, with fans spanning the globe and singles being played on iPods from New Zealand to New Delhi to New Jersey, the group can take credit for pushing back boundaries.

“After shows, people sometimes come up to us and say, ‘You know, I never knew an Indian could sing like that’ or ‘I never knew Indians could do that,'” says Rao. “It just shows how far we have to go open people’s minds.”n

Hilal Nakiboglu Isler lives in upstate New York. She is a diehard Penn Masala fan.
Published on October 2, 2006.
Photography: Hilal Nakiboglu Isler for Nirali Magazine.
Comments are closed.
  1. October 3, 2006, 12:18 pm Vijay

    I remember the first days and my buddy Sumit Bothra telling me about this whole concept…10 years later..wow…this is amazing…a nice symbol of UPenn and its student body pioneering entertainment beyond its college environs.

  2. October 14, 2006, 6:14 pm literary safari

    Hilal – Great piece! It’s great to see that the “heroes in kurtas” I wrote about 8 years ago are still going strong 🙂

  3. November 3, 2006, 9:09 pm sameer

    did you know that siddhartha from goldspot was the first music director of penn masala. we went to penn together, and i remember him arranging some of their first songs. way cool.

  4. November 13, 2006, 5:45 pm ankur

    i remember their first performance at penn. boy did they suck. i hope they got better since then.

  5. November 15, 2006, 9:31 am Hilal

    Sincere thanks for your comments everyone.

    Ankur: I don’t know what they were like ten years ago, but I think PM’s sound today is totally solid and unique.

    Sameer: I didn’t know that! Goldspot? How exciting. I think Nirali is actually planning on featuring the band sometime soon. Keep checking back @ niralimagazine.com.

    Literary Safari: Thanks for your support! Great website, btw 🙂

    Vijay: I agree! It’s terrific to see them branching out, reaching so many with their music.

    All: Make sure you check out the December issue of Nirali for loads more on today’s rising desi artists.

  6. November 24, 2006, 1:47 am shambhu nath

    Hukumat chalati hai mumbai ki chouri sarako par
    Musibat tut parati hai bhole bhale larko par
    Galatiya larkiya kare bhugatanaa larko ko partaa hai
    Badanaami maar sahe jail me sarnaa parataa hai
    Apani galtiyo ko sudhaar lo chalane waali
    Larko ki tarakki ko dekh kar jalane waali
    ;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;
    too jins pahanaa chhor de, to jism dikhaanaa chhor de
    ek sadharan kanya ban jaao hamase na pangaa mol le
    too jins pahanaa chhor de, to jism dikhaanaa chhor de
    pet khol too chalati hai larko ki batti jalati hai
    jab too jaangh dikhaati hai aandhi see aa jaati hai
    bando kee laar tapakati hai, man me aag dhadhakati hai
    pichhe tere aate fir tumase takaraate hai
    sanskaar kaa pakkaa dhaagaa dar lagataa hai tor na de
    too jins pahanaa chhor de, to jism dikhaanaa chhor de
    jab too nain milati hai logo ko aafat aati hai
    tere gadaraaye youwan ko dekh unaki samat aati hai
    rok sake na dil ko apane tirchhi nain chalate hai
    kabhi kabhi tere chakkar me apani jaan gawaate hai
    abto tumase dar lagataa hai jaadu ki puriya khol na de,
    too jins pahanaa chhor de, to jism dikhaanaa chhor de
    jab tu kamar lachakati hai tufan mail takaraati hai
    chakkar pe takkar hotaa hai, mera dil bhee rotaa hai
    tor for bhee hoti hai , too kone me roti hai
    tomato baat samajhati ho, kyo fande me fasati ho
    abto apani maryadaa ko kisi ouro ko pol na do,
    too jins pahanaa chhor de, to jism dikhaanaa chhor de

  7. January 31, 2007, 8:08 am sunny

    YOU GUYS ARE THE BEST! KEEP IT UP:D AND COME TO TORONTO PLEASE!

  8. April 14, 2007, 5:03 am JonBishop

    Good read . . . I need to add your blog to my rss reader!
    Jonathan
    Combative Martial Arts