Penn Pehchaan

Jay Patel Masala
Masala Men. (HNI)

The world’s premier Hindi a cappella group, Penn Masala, brought a full-capacity crowd to its feet last Saturday night at the University of Pennsylvania in West Philadelphia. The men treated 1,200 fans, packed into Irvine Auditorium, to timeless classics (like the desi anthem Mere Sapno Ki Rani) and fresh tracks (their reinterpretation of this year’s runaway hit Tere Bin was goosebump-inducing like you don’t even know).

The concert marked the launch of Pehchaan, Masala’s latest and perhaps most successful album: A highly effective mix of their trademark playful buoyancy, with an increasingly mature, aching soulfulness (if you don’t feel the brilliantly remastered Aankhon Mein Tu Hai racing under your skin, rippling through your spirit, get your pulse checked).

I remember going to my first Penn Masala concert six years ago; ambivalent, definitely not aware of what I was in for (you’ve seen one college a cappella performance, you’ve seen them all, right? Yawn.). But as I sat perched up on the second floor and leaned into the cold iron railing of the balcony, I heard something so unique, so inspired, it transfixed me.

I haven’t missed a single home concert since.


It would take me years to figure out that I was responding not just to the music, but to the idea of the music. Was it Hindi? Was it English? Who were these guys? Were they South Asian? American? Why did I find them so, um, cool? I watched as they slid across the stage in kurtas, their resonant “Om Shanti Oms” shaking walls, shaking souls, only to baritone-beatbox through techno hit Another Night Another Dream moments later. Like it was no big deal. Like it was the most natural thing in the world to bend these awkward, limiting boundaries that complicate life as a “hyphenated” American.

Sitting in the audience last Saturday night, this time front and center, I watched on as college senior and this year’s Penn Masala president Jay Patel took his final bows. I remembered his very first show; Jay, an acutely charismatic young guy with a promising voice. A rookie. Years later, he has now grown into his role as a creative force helping to define what it means to be desi, to be American, to be an artist. I saw Srikant Rao—Masala’s current music director—connect with the audience in such an intense, astounding way that the energy lifted and filled the room. I still haven’t come down.

On the five-hour train ride home, Penn Masala my soundtrack, I thought about Patel, Rao and their fellow seniors Anand Anbalagan, Sathvik Tantry, and (classically trained tour-de-force) Tushar Vashisht. I thought about how, whether the men set out to do this or not, they have managed to ingeniously layer transcultural elements of rhythm, style and sensibility: an effective embodiment of hipness, of youth, and desi America.

I thought about how, for all that and so much more, Penn Masala has an eternal fan in me.

More: Penn Masala on the web; Masala’s latest album; features Penn Masala on the group’s 10th anniversary; PM’s brazilliant Facebook Skit.

March 28, 2007
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  1. March 31, 2007, 6:00 pm Peter

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I had heard of this group a few years ago, and all their CD’s were sold out by the time I found their website.

    So, thanks to you and Sepia Mutiny, the new CD and the “Brown” CD arrived in today’s mail, and I have been happily listening to both all afternoon. Their voices and the songs are wonderful!

  2. June 11, 2007, 12:25 pm Madhavi

    Wow, that was a beautiful article ! I had read your previous article too Masala Men Turn 10 , but this was different !

    I am an ardent masala fan and have been hearing them since my freshman year at university. This year was the first time I saw them at concert and I couldn’t agree more with your article.

    Its been about 3 months since the PM Concert I attended in Pittsburg and haven’t come down the high since then 🙂 !

    if u do have some time, do glance over the article I wrote about them after my experience at http://madhavisthoughts.blogspot.com/2007/02/spicing-up-identity-crisis.html

    Lookng forward to reading more of your work 🙂 !