The Penn Masala a cappella group performed at the White House, invited by President Biden during the state visit by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The 19 members and alumni sang three songs to a crowd on the South Lawn before the arrival ceremony in the morning and performed another two songs to the 400-plus attending the dinner.
“It was a really proud moment when we went on the steps of the White House to represent our upbringing, our heritage, and the music that we grew up listening to,” says Raghunandan Raman, president of Penn Masala and a rising third-year math major in the College of Arts and Sciences from West Windsor, New Jersey. “To represent Indian culture at this event was honestly a true honor.”
Penn Masala has performed at the White House once before, invited by President Obama in 2009 to celebrate the signing of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The Penn Glee Club and the Shabbatones a cappella group performed at the White House for President Obama in 2014.
“It was really amazing to be part of that experience, to perform for our community and share a love for that music,” says Gaurish Gaur, the group’s business manager and a rising second-year in the Wharton School from San Diego. The June 22 performance was covered by international media, including The Indian Express, The Economic Times, and India Today.
The morning’s performance was in front of several thousand people, Gaur says, one of the largest, if not the largest, gathering of people of Indian descent at the White House. The singers, dressed in dark suits and ties, stood on the steps of the White House balcony overlooking the lawn and crowd.
The songs included the popular Bollywood tracks “Jashn e Bahaaraa,” a love song and a sentimental selection for Masala, Raman says, and “Chaiyya Chaiyya,” which he describes as upbeat and happy. “It got a lot of the crowd up on their feet,” Raman says. “The reception was just incredible, to see this audience of people knowing all the songs.”
Before the dinner the group, dressed in traditional Indian clothing, sang “Ghanan Ghanan” which has an introduction that features the voice parts building on top of one another, Raman says. “It was cool to demonstrate how a cappella really works,” he says. “And the meaning of the song is all about rain, and that day it had actually been raining, so it worked well for that, too.”
Founded in 1996, Penn Masala became internationally famous with its performance in “Pitch Perfect 2,” a 2015 film produced by Penn alumna Elizabeth Banks. The all-male group is known for original compositions and harmonies that capture experience with both Eastern and Western cultures.
Penn Masala has a history of performing at private events, but not usually during the summer, as the singers, like most Penn students, scatter for summer opportunities around the globe.
Even so, all nine of the current members and the four seniors who graduated in May made it for the White House appearance. In addition, six alumni participated from the classes of 2021 and 2022, who missed out on performing because of the pandemic.
Most of the Penn Masala members are of Indian descent, including Raman and Gaur.
Gaur’s parents were both born in India, but he was born in the United States. He is embracing his Indian culture more now than when he was growing up in California, he says. “The trend in music has become to embrace your heritage, and the recognition of South Asian music in Western media or Western culture is growing exponentially,” he says.
Raman was born in Bangor, India, and his parents grew up in remote villages. The family moved to the United States when he was young. “I’ve been part of two worlds,” he says, one American growing up in New Jersey and the other at home with his parents and family “steeped in Indian culture,” including music. Penn Masala combines “the Western side of me and the Indian side of me,” Raman says, “and I feel fortunate to be a part of this group and experience that.”