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Exclusive interview with A capella band Penn Masala!

Welcome back to India and congratulations on your new album Yuva! We are delighted to have you back again this year. Last year you came to India after a gap of three years. What brings you back again this year and please tell us that this is going to be annual tour now!

Hari: Last year’s tour was an amazing experience for everyone in the group. We could not have anticipated the kind of response we got, and we are lucky to have received the opportunity to come back and perform for everyone again this year. For most of us, this is a chance to be back in a country that is in a sense another home outside the US. From the rich artistic and musical environment to the family we have here, there are countless things about India that we love. We hope to be back as often as we can!

The Hindi and English songs in the mash-ups fit together seamlessly despite different languages. How do you come up with these incredible combinations of songs?

Praveen: Picking mixes is simultaneously one of the most exciting and difficult aspects of the group. There are a lot of factors to consider, such as audience appeal, the thematic fit between two songs, and a potential song’s musical fit within an album. At the end of the day, anyone in the group can suggest ideas for mash-ups, but we think critically about styles that we haven’t covered recently and certain artists we would like to cover before making a final choice on which mash-ups we move forward with.

What is the idea behind the new album Yuva? Who came up with this name?

Hari: After reflecting upon the variety of mixes on this new album, the group came up with the name Yuva together. Yuva represents a stage of life with which every individual is familiar. In this album, we simply celebrate youth, illustrating a natural progression from innocence to independence. From ballads to party anthems, each track on Yuva evokes in us visceral memories of youth, providing different tastes of what it means to be young. No matter your age, we hope you’ll enjoy it the same.

Last year, your show was sold out in Kolkata within seconds of going live, leading you guys to have two shows! How was the experience in performing here and how is performing in India different from performing abroad?

Pranay: Performing in two shows back-to-back was an unexpected but unbelievably exciting experience! We were overwhelmed by the response the first time around, and we’re so excited to be coming back to perform for you all again. Performing in India is always a ton of fun for the group because it gives us the opportunity to perform some throwbacks and other Hindi songs that we don’t normally get to perform in the US.

Everybody is crazy about your group and it is a landmark for the a cappella genre of music. Though we love Penn just the way it is, when do we see women artistes in the group?

Hari: The group started off as all-male perhaps by coincidence, but we’ve maintained that as a tradition since then. From a musical standpoint, we’ve developed a core style through the male vocal register, and incorporating female voices now presents a pretty big change and challenge. We are definitely not opposed, however — we collaborated with Jonita Gandhi for the track ‘Manwa Laage’ off of our previous album, Resonance. She has a beautiful voice that added diversity to our album, and we really enjoyed what she brought to the song. We hope to collaborate with more female artists in the future.

Are all the band members trained singers/musicians? What is the criterion for selection of the members and how are the members trained for a cappella?

Praveen: Through our audition process each fall, we work hard to find the best possible freshman and sophomores to join Masala. That being said, our first round of auditions is open to any male student—no singing experience required! We ask them to prepare a verse & chorus of an English and/or Hindi song, and if we like what we hear, we invite them for another more intensive round of auditions. 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.

With members passing out every year from the University, the members from the band also leave with new members joining in. How does this affect the group dynamics?

Hari: One of the major challenges we experience as a college group is its rotating nature, as seniors leave and freshmen join each year. Of course, this system brings with it a need to adjust to changes in lead talent as well as getting the freshmen up to speed on their parts for the music we perform. At the end of the day, though, they contribute to the evolution of our sound as a whole, helping us continue to push the boundaries of Hindi a cappella.

Yamir, you’re from Kolkata and the crowd went crazy seeing a local boy perform with Penn Masala. We hear you applied to the group only six days before auditions closed. What is the story behind this?

Yamir: I actually applied to the University of Pennsylvania 6 days after the deadline because I got an email saying the application deadline was extended. As far as my Masala auditions themselves go, it’s quite funny how things worked out. I auditioned for Penn Masala on a whim, more to meet the guys and get their autographs for a friend back home. Since I was there already, I thought why not. I’ve always loved singing in the shower, so I just closed my eyes and went for it. A couple years later, here I am!

The live shows are super fun to attend and we can see how much fun you guys have performing as well. Tell us about your best performance till date and why? Also, where do you find the most enthusiastic crowd?

Nikhil: I think every member of the group would have a different answer for our best performance till date, but speaking personally my favorite show till date was definitely our show in Bangalore last year. It was the first time I had been back to visit India in a long time, and it was the first time I had ever sung in front of my grandmother, who made the trip from Mysore to come see me perform. Honestly, it’s really hard to say where we find our most enthusiastic crowd. We’re lucky to have such wonderful fans wherever we go in India. They make every performance one to remember.

Phir Le Aaya Dil features snippets from past performances of the band and Photograph/ Aayat/ Lal Ishq feature clips from the band members’ childhood. Both the videos have a nostalgic feel to them. Is it a tribute to the graduating batch of Penn or is it a celebration of the work done over the past twenty years?

Pranay: Last year was the 20th anniversary of the group since its inception, so we created the video for Phir Le Aaya Dil as a tribute to the history of the group and what those before us have accomplished for the group, giving us the privilege of being who we are today. This year, we released the video for Photograph/Aayat/Laal Ishq, which used footage from our childhoods. We were inspired by Ed Sheeran’s music video for his song Photograph, and we felt that using childhood footage fit well thematically with our album Yuva celebrating youth in its many forms.

Yuva has a great collection of songs and we love all the songs. Which is the band’s most favourite song from this album? And which is the band’s favourite song from all the albums created till date?

Brendan: Every member of the group probably has a different answer, but personally, my  favorite song on Yuva is definitely Sau Asmaan/If I Lose Myself. It’s one of my favorite arrangements on the album, as I’m a huge OneRepublic fan and I love the songs on the soundtrack for Baar Baar Dekho. From all the albums created, my favorite song is Aadat/Apologize. Like I said, I’m a huge OneRepublic fan, and ever since I joined Masala this mash-up is one I’ve always loved.

Please tell us about the future projects of Penn Masala and what is next on the cards after the Yuva tour?

Pranay: Now that Yuva is finished, we’re already working on some new content for the future. We try to start working on the next album as soon as the one prior is released, and we’ve already got some cool ideas for video projects for the coming year. Make sure to follow our Facebook and Instagram and pages, and be on the lookout for announcements about what we’re working on next!

The interview with Penn Masala was featured in our May 2017 issue:

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