Experimental solo artist, Neeq Serene introduced her haunting and introspective debut single, ‘The Others‘ in May 2020, crossing over genres of trip-hop, alternative RnB, and gothic neo-folk.
An emotive and cinematic soundscape, the sophomore single ‘Fields of Gold’, released on 8th January 2021, features hypnotic vocal layers sung in both English and Urdu, inspired by Serene’s South Asian roots. When writing the song, Serene envisaged crossing the boundary from this world to the next – where departed souls shall meet again.
2019 saw the launch of PINERO|SERENE, a dream-pop songwriting collaboration with bass player Cheryl Pinero. The debut EP, ‘Dark Matter,’ was released on 28th July 2019, with the first single, ‘Take My Soul’ premiered by Clash Magazine. In this new sonic chapter, Neeq reveals a self-reflective journey through minimal, electronic music and deep lyricism, drawing on influences from the alternative music world and her Kashmiri heritage.
‘Fields of Gold’ written and performed by Neeq Serene Instruments written, played and recorded by Neeq Serene Orchestra, guitar and additional synth-overdubs played and recorded by Gon von Zola Mixing and production by Gon von Zola
Lata Mangeshkar turned 90 a little more than one year ago, a momentous milestone in a life whose story is the very chronicle of Hindi Film Music in the post-Independence era. Any superlatives used to describe this life seem banal, and indeed many of the tributes that flowed in hewed that line.
A different kind of tribute was shaping up in the heart of Arun Sampath, an unassuming IT professional based out of the NY area. He has been pursuing whistling – what he most evocatively calls MukhVenu (translates to face-flute) – as a hobby for a long time. Being an ardent fan of Lata-didi’s music, his Upahaar is an album of MukhVenu renditions of classic songs of Lata-didi.
At the outset, this seemed like an impossible endeavor. Can one hope to create even a faint shadow of the golden voice? Or to emulate the magic of the golden era? But the results are sure to take your breath away (no pun intended).
I have had the privilege of witnessing the creation of this monumental project. Each step was planned and executed meticulously. Songs were selected from 1949-58, decidedly one of the best decades of Lata-didi’s career. The final track selection is a fine representation of the great music composers that Didi worked with, as well as of their profile in the popular imagination. Arun’s perfectionism surfaced during the recording and finishing stage, as he fretted over minor deviations which I could hardly detect. It is also noteworthy that the recording was done in the traditional style (takes, retakes, and all) without resorting to autotune.
The polished and packaged product is astounding. The great Anil Biswas (whose honey-sweet romantic composition ‘man mein kisi ki preet basaale’ from Aaram is recreated by Arun) noted that Lata-didi’s voice was like a piccolo, sharp yet sweet, and impeccably in tune. MukhVenu turns out to be singularly suitable to mimic that voice. The fidelity of the recreations to the original is evident to the keen listener, the MukhVenu following the voice very closely, including the subtle pauses and even breath-stops. One drifts into a nostalgic journey as the immortal tunes impinge on the mind’s ear as much as the physical ones. And one cannot stop listening.
There is a hoary tradition of recreating Hindi Film songs on instruments. When one listens to the haunting gypsy violin or Hawaiian guitar of Van Shipley, the mesmerizing piano of Brian Silas, or the sonorous saxophone of Manohari-da, one realizes that these musicians must have been the keenest listeners of the original melodies, understanding and absorbing not only the tunes but the intent of the creation before reproducing it in the chosen medium. This is the greatest tribute one can pay to the original.
In this sense, Arun’s MukhVenu renditions are a profound and heartfelt tribute to the legend that is Lata Mangeshkar.
Chetan Vinchhi is a tech entrepreneur based out of Bangalore. He is keenly interested in Indian classical and old film music, is active in music appreciation groups, and occasionally writes about music.
Minnesota-based artist, Vinod Krishnan, is well known for his creative work and collaborations with IndianRaga, an arts education startup founded at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This Chennai rooted artist’s dream has always been to take Carnatic music to the world and to bring world music together. Krishnan describes his work to be inspiring, refreshing, disruptive, and culturally relevant.
Krishnan collaborated with a wide range of artists from IndianRaga fellow, Mahesh Raghavan to India’s leading musicians Vijay Prakash and Shankar Mahadevan in recent years. He enjoys experimentation in music – from connecting Carnatic elements to a famous pop cover like Shape of You, to composing breezy Tamil melodies such as his original Kaalai Pozhudil.
Krishnan’s Recent Release: Kandapadi Kaadhali
Inspired by Krishnan’s love for A.R Rahman’s melodies like Rehna Tu and Nenje Ezhu, his new release Kandapadi Kaadhalitalks to those in love and encourages to cherish love in its raw, non-judgemental form. “I adore the seamless chord progressions and a refreshing choice of sounds in most ARR hits, which inspired the approach to this song,” says Krishnan, who has a strong passion for connecting with the sound, arrangement, and emotion in all his productions.
“This song lets me step out of my comfort zone and play with R&B,” adds Krishnan. “It’s liberating how you can be rooted in timeless cultural values, and yet be globally relevant, and to be all of this needn’t be conflicting. Growing up with ARR’s music, genres no longer seemed mutually exclusive. I believe one needn’t have to pick just one particular genre all the time.”
Krishnan’s Background in Carnatic Music
Trained in Carnatic music, he spent most of his life as an ardent learner. In 2011, Krishnan started singing for local concerts and Bharatanatyam productions in the US. He also showed a keen eye towards composing, arranging, and producing music – the skills he put to use when he first joined the IndianRaga fellowship in 2016. From then, he made 35 videos both with IndianRaga and independently and garnered a collective viewership of more than 10 million views for his digital music content.
Influence of Chennai Roots on his Music
“Chennai is like an electron – held back strongly by a nucleus that is culture,” says Krishnan, when asked how he describes his traditional roots. The culture and the traditional embrace of external influences that he was brought up with, help him understand the identity of his origin, that’s a mix of sincerity, modernization, pride, and vibrant culture.
His culture and background made him realize that one can be rooted in timeless cultural values, and yet be globally relevant and enterprising, and to be all of this needn’t be conflicting. “Another aspect is I’ve always felt Chennai would only be personified to be a culturally-rooted and elegant human being. At some level, that has been the kind of person I’ve sought to be,” says Krishnan.
Sruthi Dhulipala is a San Francisco-based Communications professional and writer, She has been priorly published in an International Anthology “Lakdikapul II,” through an Indian poet’s association. She is passionate about music and her goal in life to promote music to the benefit of the people, through music therapy. A passionate dreamer and a self-professed book dragon, she is also a philosophical person who believes that everything happens for a reason in life.
It begins with only a single voice. Just a single beat, a simple six-beat dadra breaking through the silence. Then another. And in a matter of seconds, the song emerges in full force, a Bollywood-pop rhythm that’s smooth and yet hits all the right notes. So engrossed am I in the voices reverberating from my Youtube playlist that I almost entirely forget that there were no instruments present in the entire song. No omnipresent bass to emphasize a beat drop. No layers of autotune to smother the melody like fabric. Just voices, raw and powerful, somehow so American and yet unabashedly Indian at the same time.
That was my first peek into the world of Penn Masala, a group of a capella singers from the University of Pennsylvania. Over the past two decades, the group has skyrocketed to fame, garnering millions of views on Youtube and other platforms for their creative Bollywood mashups. They’ve covered everything from Guru Randhawa’s smash-hit Suit to Justin Bieber’s chart-topping Let Me Love You, and can seamlessly pivot between classical melodies, jazz riffs, hip hop, and much more. Beyond the screens, they’ve worked with some of Bollywood’s best. A few of their live performances include sharing the stage with Ayushmann Khurana and A.R. Rahman. In 2015, they were a part of the Anna Kendrick-starrer Pitch Perfect 2, and somehow found the time to slide in performances for Sachin Tendulkar, Lata Mangeshkar, and Barack Obama.
It’s quite the formidable resume, all right. And a resume about to be altered with their eleventh studio album, Musafir. To discuss this latest addition to their discography, I had a chat with Penn Masala, where they harkened back to the group’s humble beginnings.
Penn Masala was started in 1996 by a group of students at the University of Pennsylvania who wanted to use this art form to bridge the gap between their heritage and the culture they lived in, explained Sahit, a group member. I think that message still resonates with all of us and is one of the main things that drew us to the group. I don’t think our founders realized where the group would go when they started it back then but we feel so lucky that our music and our message has made it so far.
He then went on to discuss the a capella world, a powerhouse for entertainment on college campuses and beyond. Before Penn Masala, UPenn was already home to a number of successful groups, who not only sung as one, but lived and studied alongside one another, sometimes maintaining these friendships for the rest of their lives.
While the a capella industry had already seen all-female or all-Jewish teams dominate the stage, there was a gaping void in the recipe. Then they added the masala.
..Our founders felt, many Indian American kids have a whole separate side of their identity that this form of expression may not have been able to capture in the past. I think a cappella’s versatility and organic nature makes it especially conducive to different styles as well. In our experience, it’s been really interesting and fun to incorporate Indian sounds such as tabla and sargam into the traditional a cappella repertoire.
With Musafir, Penn Masala went above and beyond their previous a capella pursuits, forging soulful medleys from Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani’s Illahi and Ed Sheeran’s Castle on the Hill. They bounced between styles while still matching one another in technique and vigor. On the surface, Musafir seemed like yet another Masala blockbuster. But the group mentioned how this album crosses more serious frontiers, on both a personal level and for the South-Asian community as a whole.
In this album, we came to realize that we had a platform in the Indian-American community, and that there were issues that meant a lot to us that maybe have not been explored as much as they could be. These included mental wellness, South Asian identity, and linguistic diversity. We put a lot of thought into the song selection and visuals so that they could most authentically convey our experiences. Beyond the ideas that we explored in this album, we also pushed ourselves musically by exploring a whole new range of musical styles and languages that Masala has not covered in the past. In creating these mixes and in conceptualizing the videos, we spent a lot of time reflecting together on our own experiences.
Penn Masala makes good music. They always have, and another album with effortless transitions and Bollywood pomp would not be a surprise. What has changed is how their concept has come of age over the years, where they act not merely as a college-wide a capella group, but as a cross-cultural liaison in new musical territory. They are evidence of the Indian entertainment industry at the height of its globalization. And so the album begins with a music video for the Illahi mashup, which serves as a heartfelt tribute to the Indian-American student life. As a Desi student myself, I was delighted to find pieces of myself in the video, which includes Bollywood movie sprees, tadka dal, cricket — staples of the brown lifestyle. Even better is the Desi Regional Medley, a mix that unifies India’s rich linguistic history while beautifully highlighting the differences.
This is an album that does not shy away from appearing “too Indian”, but rather marinates in its own masala.
Music is often most beautiful when the expression is unfiltered and authentic, the group concluded. And Penn Masala has lived up to that ideal, offering us a chance to find our own inner Musafir. We hope that listening to this album allows our fans to similarly [reflect on their experience], and how music can be used to express it.
Much like the Desi identity, Penn Masala is in a constant state of metamorphosis, leaving its imprint on every continent, keeping its roots, and yet finding its voice. Musafir closes on a lingering crescendo, a fitting end to a beginning.
To listen to Musafir, the full album can be listened to on YouTube here and an abridged version can be streamed here.
Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, CA. Aside from being the assistant culture editor of India Currents, she is the editor-in-chief of her school’s news-zine The Roar. She is also the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton, and uses her role to spread a love of poetry in her community.