On Friday, March 13, 2020, a crazy idea popped into my head, and I began writing down some lyrics to convey it. This was the day the news of SIP (Shelter In Place) became official, and I thought, “YES! A silly family project and an outlet to be creative during this unknown time period.” As I delved in, I had an aha moment. I wanted this project to be more. I wanted it to mean more.
I took a deep breath because I knew my realization involved confronting the daunting Beast known as iMovie. I warily explained how I would need its cooperation to help my inspiration come to life. The Beast did not respond kindly. In fact, I would say it was downright cruel: taunting me with overwhelming features, with no explanation on how to use them, and then throwing them repeatedly in my face as I gingerly attempted to learn. “DAMN YOU, BEAST!,” was a frequent wail, accompanied by embarrassing temper tantrums that would rival those of a two-year-old. And, as in dealing with a toddler, I did the dance of countless time-ins and time-outs. At one point the time out was so long that I thought this brainchild was a thing of the past. A fleeting flash of imagination.
Lucky for me and unluckily for the Beast, I have many flaws, but being a quitter isn’t one of them. With the support and permission of incredible friends and family, I carried on. And nine weeks later, here we are – metaphorically, if each week symbolizes a month – I am now giving birth to this project.
A time like this flushes all essential realizations (pun intended) to the surface. We are more alike than we are different, and we are more together than we are apart.
I share this video/message with you and the world because I believe in for what it stands. I believe we will all be in this together, push through this together, and come out of this together, even stronger than ever before. From my heart to yours…..
Sangini Majmudar Bedner is a former Miss India USA, Stanford University graduate, teacher, writer, and professional actress, dancer and choreographer. Sangini thrives on connecting with her roots and incorporating them into her life adventures. Her greatest purpose is collaborating with her imagination; her greatest pride is being a passionate mom to her two boys.
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.
More than anything, this election and the fact that it’s happening during violent times, has made everybody nationwide and all around the world sit up and look into who America is made up of. The Clinton base (and non-base, for that matter), is understandable; she inspires people as much as she incites them to hate her. It is the Sanders and Trump campaigns that are shining a light into sections of the population that have been, it would seem, glossed over or not ever accounted for. Chief among these are the whites who feel threatened by a growing loss of ethnicity, immigrants—legal or otherwise, and millennials who have been accused of being political on social media to the exclusion of actual action.
The music world, too wants to make sense of these new bases. We will look first at the ongoing effort by Rock The Vote, a non-profit agency that has been instrumental in motivating and guiding young, first-time voters since the 1990s. The second project we will look into has Michael Friedman, a music composer who sets out to interview voters and sets their own words and stories to melody, verbatim.
Rock The Vote plays an activist’s role, in that they strive to reach the young in their own space (online, events), using their own language (“Voting Is the party”), and getting their own icons to talk to them (John Legend, Jennifer Lopez, and the like). It is non-partisan and as a banner on its website suggests, helps the 12,000 individuals who turn 18 every day, get registered to vote. The website is simple to navigate, audience-appropriately skewed for a mobile experience and with well-chosen menu titles, such as “Find your Elected Officials,” which gives you your federal and state officials by asking you to fill out a street address.
One music video has rock/rap artists grooving to “Turn Out for What”—each celebrity announces why they’ll be voting: education, reproductive rights, gay rights, marriage inequality, and so on. The song is a re-recording of the hit (120M views on YouTube) “Turn Down For What” by Li’l Jon and DJ Snake. Rock the Vote’s version has Jon on the phone with actress Whoopi Goldberg en route to his local voting station. There he meets and sings along with more artists such as television producer Lena Dunham and multi-artist Devendra Banhart. (Incidentally, Banhart’s not desi, his Venezuelan mother and American father were followers of an Indian guru when he was born.)
Rock the Vote was founded as a response to the 1980’s censorship campaign by “parents, politicians, and police” against artists’ use of explicit language. Such a mixture of art, organization, and activism could only have been the brainchild of somebody with that specific background. Indeed, the founder Jeff Ayeroff worked to market artists such as Madonna, Dire Straits and Prince, and then later, helped launch the Virgin US label. Rock The Vote’s first campaign in the early 1990s showed Madonna wrapped in an American flag.
Moving on from activism to music documentaries: In February this year, The New Yorker Radio Hour aired Friedman’s “Mock Caucus.” The lyrics include:
I moved here when I was 10
Now I am 18
We started a Mock Caucus at school
To hear different opinions
That guy Andy listens to his father,
Who listens to Rush Limbaugh a lot
Sure, we’re in Iowa
Our school is 97% white.
Mock Caucus goes on to describe how when somebody greeted “Merry Christmas,” the response was “We’re Muslim.” After an account of few more such instances, the voter thought that being politically correct has encouraged people to not have strong opinions. This, according to this voter, had led to frustration and violence.
“Ballad of a Trump Supporter” aired in April, and has Friedman mouthing a South Carolina man’s words. The voter is in his sixties, talking about a youth spent hunting, being brought up by a black nanny, using the N word, glad that the confederate flag was brought down at the State Capitol grounds but confesses that he has it at home for nostalgia sake. He is happy that Trump has upset the “apple-cart.”
Listening to the lyrics is a surprising experience. The melody is barely one, and musically, it’s not even worth a review. But the power is in that the lyrics hit home. Turns out, it’s easier to understand a voter’s psyche by listening to a verbatim account sung by a third party, rather than say, through a television interview.
Friedman’s music serves as a record of how this time was lived by voters from various strata. The irony of the policy on illegal immigrants—the making of it, its enforcers, and the people who live it, is best summed up in a few lines taken from Friedman’s “Undocumented” which aired in March:
Born in Mexico, grew up in United States
Separated from my mother for 21 years, she stayed back…
When I was 18, my dad got deported
At 18, my first job, got fired at 20
At 22 I got fired again
My documents didn’t match up,
In Arizona, the cop asked for my ID,
All I had was my Mexican passport
Which you never show a policeman
In my wallet, I found a Sam’s (Club)
card and showed it to him
He said “Okay, yeah,
If you buy in bulk,
you must be an American.”
Check out the online version of this article for digital extras, including podcasts of voters’ verse.
Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music, and avidly tracks inbtersecting points