Blending cultures, note by note


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The lights come up on the stage. The audience members hear the piano playing a soft melody. Then comes the consistent clapping in the background mixed with a drum beat. Many recognize the song and expect to hear traditional female American artists come in with the vocals.

But instead, the voice is that of a young male, dressed in a black, traditional Indian dress — a kurta — with a yellow chunni around his neck — a kind of scarf meant to have a "crushed" look. The traditional lyrics are blended with the Hindi lyrics of a song with a similar beat. The audience then realizes the "instruments" aren't instruments at all, but the cleverly crafted combination of the other performers on stage. This is South Asian a cappella.

On Saturday, seven South Asian a cappella teams from universities around the country will flock to Iowa City to participate in the sixth-annual Gathe Raho competition. The event will take place at 7 p.m. in the Englert Theater, 221 E. Washington St. Admission is $10.

Gathe Raho, which means "keep singing" in Hindi, gives South Asian a cappella teams a chance to show off their unique music style. South Asian a cappella is so named not necessarily for the ethnicity of the members of the groups but for the music they produce.

The groups blend the lyrics and beats of popular American and South Asian songs. This can be done in a variety of ways, including overlapping the lyrics — with different members of the group singing both songs at the same time — or singing parts of the songs in succession.

Rishabh Alaap Singh, the president of Deewane, the South Asian a cappella team from Carnegie Mellon University, said the mash-up indicative of such a cappella is what makes it so appealing to listeners across cultures.

"[Americans] listen to these Hindi songs and have no idea what they are really saying, but they can tell it's a form of emotion," he said. "The emotion they have for a song is transferred over to a song with lyrics they don't know, but it's an emotion they understand."

Deewane — an all-male group — has competed in Gathe Raho for four of the past six years. Last year, the team came in second place and the year before, they took home the grand prize. Second place wins $1,000, and the winning team receives $3,000, paid for by revenue from events put on throughout the year and the registration fees each team pays.

Gathe Raho is hosted by the University of Iowa Indian Student Alliance and is one of only two recognized South Asian a cappella competitions in the country. The only other recognized competition is Anahat and is hosted by the University of California-Berkley.

The competition serves as a casual and fun way for students to be introduced to the culture and helps students of South Asian descent who grew up surrounded by American culture reconnect with their heritage.

"That's what we're really trying to do here," said Swati Panchal, the president of the alliance. "We're trying to educate people here on campus about the Indian culture. We're trying to help those students who never got a sense for their culture."

The interest in this form of a cappella music began with the formation of Penn Masala in 1996. The group, which began as a cluster of students from the University of Pennsylvania, was the first in the world to blend the music of these two distinct cultures. Penn Masala now has seven complete albums and has performed for audiences as prestigious as President Obama.

As the trend has grown, the UI alliance has received an increasing number of applicants for Gathe Raho. This year, the members had to select seven teams out of 20 applicants.

Arti Parikh, the president of the University of Illinois-Urban/Champaign team, Illini Awaaz, said being selected to compete at Gathe Raho is a great opportunity for South Asian a cappella teams to be surrounded by students with similar interests.

"I think the fact that there are only two [competitions] makes it really hard," she said. "We get to meet people, and we get to learn a lot. It helps me in my leadership a lot to know how to train them."
Arti Bhakta, social head of the UI alliance, said she has seen the excitement of the students at the competition and that it helps to positively represent the UI to students from around the country.

"They're going to say how much fun they had at the University of Iowa and how much they learned," she said. "They're going to take that with them into their singing career. That's something that's most important, the sheer memories that are made."

This year is Illini Awaaz's first time at Gathe Raho. Parikh said last year, the group applied but were not selected. It also performed at Anahat last year.

"I guess the goal would be just to be better than we were in California," she said. "Our set list wasn't as polished as the other groups. We didn't know what we were getting into, so now we really do know what to expect."

Bhakta said the night before the competition, the UI Indian Alliance holds a rehearsal and a reception for all of the teams and serves traditional Indian cuisine. She struggled to find words to explain the high level of excitement, fun, and good-spirited competitiveness that exists among the teams.

M. Haris Usmani, a graduate student from Pakistan on the Carnegie Mellon team, said the competition also provides the teams with a way to measure their skill and help them strive for success.

"It's really important," he said. "Unless there's an event to showcase it, you really don't get motivated enough. It does become an incentive for us to work toward."

This competition in particular is significant because its target audience will attend, students who appreciate the culturally blended a cappella. Bhakta said the crowd at the competition swells with passion for the music.

Iowa Agni, the University of Iowa's South Asian a cappella team will not compete at Gathe Raho, but it will perform at the end of the night. Until this year, the group was all-female.

Freshman Pedro [need second name] joined the team this year out of a love for music and curiosity for something new. He provides a key element to the team's performance, being one of the "instruments" that accompanies the female vocals. He said the group's performance this year is going to be fresh and exciting.

"There's definitely going to be a surprise song that many people are going to be excited about," he said. "I can't explain the feeling you're going to feel. It's just going to be an enjoyable experience — as long as you like music."

Gathe Raho
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Englert, 221 E. Washington
Admission: $10

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