South Asian A Cappella Fuses Two Worlds and Several Languages

In a back stairwell on the sixth floor of New York University’s Kimmel Center, six young women hum a note before breaking into song.

“Shine bright like a ––”

“No, no, no, wrong note. Start again.”

The young women are members of New York Masti, the first all-female South Asian a cappella group formed in the United States. Dressed in jeans and boots, with long black hair, white iPhones buzzing constantly on the stairs where they’d left them, they represent a group of young South Asian Americans who want to merge their heritage with their American lives.

In a few hours, they will step onto a stage in front of an audience that is mostly South Asian, mixing the sounds of the Bollywood songs they watch with their parents at home with the hip-hop and pop music they hear on the radio and dance to at clubs.

South Asian a cappella is a trend steadily gaining popularity on the “Web-waves” of iTunes, Spotify and Pandora. Nearly every college campus with a significant South Asian presence has given birth to this kind of group since the formation of Penn Masala at the University of Pennsylvania in 1996. From the University of California-Berkeley’s Dil Se, to Northwestern’s Brown Sugar, to Rutgers’ RAAG, “browntown” a cappella groups are popular not only in that community, but are finding audiences on the rest of their campuses too.

Penn Masala jump-started a trend that would soon catch on at other colleges. The founders of the group thought it was “important to take that musical genre and fit it to the music that they loved: both the music they listened to growing up at home, and the modern pop and rock music they were exposed to elsewhere,” said current president Sam Levenson.

Neil Chainani of University of Maryland’s Anokha said the group was inspired by Penn Masala’s fusion of different cultures in their music. “The idea was a good-enough one that they thought the entire country should benefit from it,” he said. “I think that our culture is one of the richest in the world, and I wanted to take it and make it something else that everyone is familiar with.”

Since they began the fusion trend, Penn Masala have become legends in their field, bringing something different to the big a cappella scene that already existed on college campuses. They’ve recorded seven studio albums and performed across the world. They recently returned from a five-city tour of all the Hard Rock Cafes in India, where American South Asian a cappella groups have captured audiences’ attention.

In 2009, Penn Masala was invited to perform at the Hindu festival Diwali celebration at the White House for President Obama. Rutgers University’s RAAG and Raagapella have performed at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Penn Masala in particular has attracted a breed of “groupies,” mainly female Penn students who attend all the concerts, own all the albums and attend parties thrown on campus by the group at the house a number of its members live in.

Haarika Kamani, a 22-year-old Penn graduate who now lives in Syracuse, is a fan. “I like that they score all their songs themselves and merge the Hindi and English lyrics and harmonies so well,” she said. She has all of their songs downloaded to her laptop, and even her parents ask when the group is performing so they can attend a show.

Not one of the “groupies,” Kamani still attended many of their shows while at college. She thinks that women at Penn found the men attractive because they were such good singers.

Penn Masala is slowly gaining fans in India as a cappella catches hold and younger generations of Indians find themselves in a globalized and Westernized India. After their performance in Pune, India earlier this year, one fan tweeted: “My night with @PennMasala in #Pune! #Brilliant show! =D Night Made.”

All of these groups follow a similar style: they typically pick an English song and a Hindi song and arrange the music so that the two songs are merged together into one.  One of New York Masti’s latest songs, and one that they performed that night at the Kimmel Center, is a fusion of Rihanna’s “Diamonds” and the Hindi song “Ya Ali.” Penn Masala’s latest album, “Panoramic,” features mixes of music by Jason Mraz, Maroon 5 and Kanye West with popular Bollywood songs. Their most popular song is a mix of Hindi, English and Arabic entitled, “Aicha.”

Their beatboxing skills are impressive, too. Newbies to Penn Masala concerts often crane their necks trying to find the live band, unable to believe that the instrumental sounds are voice-created.

Penn Masala is the most famous of the lot, being the first on the scene, but others are slowly catching up. Anokha and UC Berkeley’s Dil Se are releasing debut albums this spring. Northwestern’s Brown Sugar will release a fourth this spring; Raagapella is currently working on its second studio album, and Penn Masala on its eighth.

With this fusion of East and West, performers sometimes dress in colorful traditional South Asian garb, scarves and swaying skirts glittering on the stage – or on other days, in suits and ties, dresses and heels.

Before their performance, the women of New York Masti obsessed over every little note in the stairwell, debating whether they should bother with the choreography they had practiced. “Did I sound bad?” Rasica Selvarajah asked nervously about her Hindi solo performance. They turned back to argue over the pace of the song. “We’ve been friends for so long, that’s why we can fight with each other like this,” Simrin Jhangiani said later.

By the time they reached the stage a few hours later, however, dressed in white kurta tops and baggy gold pants, all nervousness had disappeared. As they hit the first notes of “Diamonds,” a group of young men sitting in the back of the full auditorium begins to whistle and catcall. It’s not just the male all-a-cappella-stars who attract the groupies, it seems.