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Indian-American college band Penn Masala, which mixes a cappella and Bollywood, starts its India tour today.
It started out as a university band but Penn Masala came about to be more than just that. A musical by-product of the growing South Asian diaspora in the US, led by a spirited bunch of Indian-American boys studying at the University of Pennsylvania (that lends itself to the first half of the band name), it got itself the tag of the world's first Hindi a cappella group. And to pair the best of both worlds — as much of John Mayers as AR Rahman — they took the unlikely route of a cappella, a form of group music, the roots of which are in Gospel and choir. "It adds value to the already known songs by vocalising the instrument and simulating the drum and the guitar chord effects of a particular song with your voice," explains Sam Levenson, one of the current lead vocalists of the band.
Sixteen years since its formation, Penn Masala, currently a 12-member group, starts its India tour across the Hard Rock Cafe outlets in Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Delhi on January 4. Apart from its line-up of some popular numbers, the band members will play their latest composition — one that blends Ishq Bina from Taal with Coldplay's Fix You. While their music finds an audience in the South Asian communities of the US and UK, they have a following in India too.
Even though the band has established itself in South Asian music, Penn Masala hasn't abandoned its college-band fundamentals. The line-up changes every year as students graduate. "With every changing group, there has been an effort to increase the scope of our music. It's not just mainstream Bollywood anymore — we are interested in newer musical traditions too, such as the new Pakistani Sufi-rock and Indian indie music," says Levenson, the only American in the otherwise Indian-American all-male ensemble.