Tag Archives: Penn Masala

Penn Masala at Hard Rock Cafe, Bangalore

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The term ‘boy band’ is dismissively used and abused as shorthand for everything that’s wrong with the music industry – whether personality-free meat puppets heeding their Machiavellian producers, or guile-less manipulation, or a general lack of character, integrity, and quality in the product itself. By ‘product’, I mean the music, but that’s the sort of word the puppet masters are supposed to use to describe something as elemental as music – a product to be hawked. However, often lost in this monetary maelstrom is that product – the songs are frequently frighteningly good. They’re appealing, catchy earworms that are even, summoning my forces of Carnatic music clichés, mellifluous. 

When Penn Masala took the stage at a packed Hard Rock Café on the 10th of January, the first impression was that they were a boy band. Eleven young lads trooping onto the roof of the bar made me marvel at the structural integrity of the stage, and these gents had no instruments – they had no names either, apart from the one alumnus who joined them for a couple of tunes. The rest didn’t introduce themselves, reduced to being marked only by their quirks of appearance under their uniform colour-coded attire – that one in the waistcoat, the one who looked like a cross between Vir Das and Ranbir Kapoor, the one who looked like a lost brother of Joaquin Phoenix (See also: ‘that white guy in the brown group’), and so on.

Penn Masala, hailing from the University of Pennsylvania, are billed as one of the world’s preeminent Hindi a capella bands. A capella, Italian for ‘in the manner of the church/chapel’, has come to mean singing without any/minimal backing instrumentation. ‘Voice only’, one might say. In other words, Penn Masala were very much on friendly turf – a capella is hard coded into every Indian’s genetic makeup by that bane of school excursion buses everywhere: Antakshari.

They kicked off their first set with Outlandish’s version of ‘Aicha’, and two things were immediately apparent – that they had solid backing arrangements and that their lead vocalists were hit-and-miss, some sounding a little off key. It took a while to get warmed up, but the crowd really got going, in brazen defiance of the prevailing political climate, when Penn dove into Atif Aslam’s ‘Woh Lamhe’, with the band almost being drowned out by the crowd for most of the song.

That exuberance was a sight to behold for the rest of the gig. Penn Masala took a break shortly after, and when they returned for their second set, most of the songs (‘Tu Aashiqui Hai’, ‘She Will Be Loved’ and especially ‘Fix You’) were raucously matched by the crowd – that’s the benefit of singing popular songs that the crowd had been weaned on, or perhaps the benefit of allowing more alcohol to be imbibed.

 

The night’s setlist was as close to (discounting Real McCoy’s ‘Another Night’) a list of modern standards as you can get – Atif Aslam, Maroon 5, Coldplay, but as stated earlier, the quality of the singing itself was variable to an extent I wouldn’t have expected from a band that’s been around for fifteen years and released seven albums. But then I realized that Penn Masala is indeed a boy band, in the conceptual sense of the term – they aren’t a band per se, but more a brand with a revolving door of members (thanks to that annoying college conceit called ‘graduation’). I say that not as a slight, but to gain a measure of understanding. While ‘Penn Masala’ have been around for fifteen years, as too some of the arrangements used, the singers themselves are relatively wet behind the ears. Keeping that in mind, the band actually did a remarkable job of supporting each other, often adapting their harmonizing to the key of the vocalist.

Yes, Penn Masala is a boy band – literally as well, for a group of women I met before the concert told me (facetiously, of course… I hope) that they’d come to scout prospective grooms from this buffet of eligible gujju (I checked – they’re not all gujju) boys. Though not without their faults, the liveliness, charm, and the sheer energy of the crowd and band in tandem won over pretty much everyone in attendance.

On the other hand, I must mention that there was one gent who grumbled that all the people who were cheering off-key singing were a blight on humanity. It takes all kinds to make the world.

Varun Rajiv

Varun Rajiv has tinnitus. The first band he adored with all his heart was Boyzone.

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Interview with Siddhartha Khosla, Goldspot

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Goldspot is a Los Angeles-based band founded by singer/songwriter Siddhartha Khosla. They shot to fame with their debut album – ‘The Tally of the Yes Men’ and followed up with ‘And the Elephant is Dancing’. After a powerful performance at the Hard Rock Cafe, Pune on Jan 25th 2012, Siddhartha Khosla, the lead vocalist of Goldspot chatted up with the WTS Crew, here’s a peek into what he had to say… 

WTS: Welcome to India! How is the tour shaping up? 

Siddhartha: Thank you! The tour has been amazing, we had a great time! We’ve had wonderful audiences. We played in Lucknow, Delhi, Mumbai and now Pune. Up next is Hyderabad and Bangalore. The audience has been unbelievable. I mean, we have played for thousands of people already so it’s pretty amazing. We played at Blue Frog in Mumbai yesterday and they said it was the most number of people they had ever seen on a weeknight. So it was great – we had like 800 people last night! 

WTS: Have you toured India before? How was the reception then? 

Siddhartha: Yeah we have toured India a couple of times before. The response was amazing. We had a very similar response but with lesser people and now the number of people who are into Goldspot has increased substantially!

WTS: Tell us about your influences in music. 

Siddhartha: I was born in the US and I grew up listening to the music my parents brought to the US. They brought all their music from India to the States – Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh, S.D Burman, Hemant Kumar, Kishore Kumar,  Geeta Dutt , Lata Mangeshkar…I would know this stuff more than you, brother! And that’s the stuff that really impacted me and the stuff that I love. I listen to this now more than anything else.

WTS: We did notice some of these influences in your music – the Friday intro is reminiscent of S.D Burman. How does the western audience like it?

Siddhartha: The western audiences- when they listen to our songs, they don’t know why they like it but they do. Indian audiences on the other hand, know why they like it and it gets all nostalgic for them. 

WTS: Weren’t you a part of the boy band Penn Masala? 

Siddhartha: Oh man, yeah – Penn Masala! I was in another established group in college, and Penn Masala – a bunch of Indian guys was the new thing which was formed – great guys and wonderful musicians! They asked me to be their music director and I agreed. I created arrangements for them.  I was their S.D Burman if I can ever be that! (Smiles) The closest I ever got.

WTS: Your first album Tally of the Yes Men was a hit. How tough was it for you to come up with the second one And the Elephant is Dancing with all the mounting expectations?

Siddhartha: Easy. I never made any music with any expectations. For me it’s about making songs and sounds which is honest to me. Look, at the end of the day, I’m Indian and I grew up with Indian music in my blood. I grew up with Western music as well because I grew up in the US. I grew up with both cultures as a very integrated part of me. So when I write music, I write it with the old Indian influence and the Western influence. So when I made And the Elephant is Dancing, it was very easy because the first album Tally of the Yes Men did really well for us. It did well because no label told us what to do. I made that album independently. You know what the budget was for the album? Zero dollars. I made it on my own, with my own hard work. I had a day job. I worked 9 to 5 and from 6 in the evening to 2 in the morning for a year and a half, I made the album with a friend of mine – no costs. Music was my love. And a year and a half later we got signed because they loved the album so much! 

WTS: An alternate version of your first album featuring A.R Rahman’s Chennai Orchestra was released in 2007. How did that come about? 

Siddhartha: We finally got signed to a major label after one and a half years, and they told us “We love your album! We want to release the album in 6 months.”  I said, “No. I want to release it with the Chennai Orchestra.” They asked “Why do you want it with the Chennai Orchestra?” I said, “That’s the sound. I want them to play the old 60s, 70s Burman style arrangements.” They said “No, you can use the LA Philharmonic, you can use the New York Philharmonic, and we’ll hire them.” The label was just gonna throw money at us but I said no, I want to go to India and want to record with the Chennai orchestra because that’s the right sound and the label agreed. So I worked with Srinivas Murthy who is A.R Rahman’s senior music conductor. The guy is a genius. He and I wrote the arrangements together. I wrote some, he wrote others, but the ones he came up with were way better than what I could come up with – he’s amazing! He’s been around for a long time, so he knew how to create that old sound and he did it really nicely. 

WTS: The intro for Friday has an awesome retro Bollywood sound. How did you come up with that? 

Siddhartha: The intro – that (sings the Friday Intro) da – da da…da da – da dadada – the reason why that happened was Murthyji. He came up with that opening – he killed that.  It was beautiful! We took our shoes off and went to the studio and there was a 25 piece orchestra! These guys, with Murthyji’s direction, came up with the beautiful arrangement and that was (sings the Friday intro) da… dada… It was beautiful!

WTS: Did you cringe when you watched ‘Friday’ by Rebecca Black? 

Siddhartha: Oh man! (Shakes head in disbelief) Rebecca Black! See, I love how much exposure artists have on the internet but this is like the one downfall with social media that garbage gets through. But you know what, I have to say – honestly I love the fact that she put it out, because it makes our version that much better!

WTS: What’s in store for 2012? 

Siddhartha: We have a new album we are recording now. It will be done hopefully in the next 3 or 4 months and will be released hopefully by the end of the year. We’ll do a lot more touring and we’ll come back to India as soon as we possibly can! 

WTS: Choose your drink – Miranda or Fanta? 

Siddhartha: GOLDSPOT! (Sid grins widely, everyone else howls) Coming to India when I was a kid with my cousins in Delhi, we drank a lot of Goldspot and Campa-Cola. And Goldspot was the most refreshing, bubbly, beautiful drink ever! It kills Fanta.

Aneesh Sanyal

Aneesh Sanyal is a failed guitarist and a fake Bong. He cannot get beyond 80s rock and is a certified hedonist. He likes food, music and trees.

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