Penn Masala has performed all over the country since the group’s inception in 1996 — including, as of Wednesday, at the White House.
The Hindi a cappella group was asked to perform at the signing ceremony of the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Initiative, which is designed to increase the participation of those communities in various federal offices.
The ceremony coincided with the White House’s annual celebration of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights that takes place Oct. 17.
Attendees of the event included President Barack Obama, Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Office of Public Liason associate director Kalpen Modi — also known as Kal Penn, who taught at Penn last year — as well as other Congressmen and members of the Asian American community.
“When we talk about America’s [Asian American and Pacific Islander] communities,” Obama said in a speech after the performance, “we’re talking about the creative energies of musicians like the singers Penn Masala — we appreciate them — who performed today.”
Penn Masala was contacted by Modi a few weeks ago in his new role as a liaison with the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, asking if the group would be interested in performing, “especially with the Diwali aspect to the ceremony,” explained Penn Masala Business Manager Sachin Amrute, a Wharton junior.
“[Modi] had been in touch with us while he was teaching here at Penn and thought we would be appropriate for the celebration,” said Ankit Dhir, the group’s president and a Wharton senior.
The event took place in the East Room of the White House, which was where former President George W. Bush signed the enabling law for the India-U.S. civil nuclear deal.
Bush also started the tradition of celebrating Diwali at the White House, although he never attended the ceremony himself.
At the ceremony, Penn Masala performed the “Star Stangled Banner” as well as their own hit, “Aicha.”
“We chose the song because it’s a good blend of Arabic, Hindi and English — so it’s really representative of the Eastern and Western cultures that represent our group,” said Dhir.
Penn Masala has so far released six albums. Two of their most popular songs were featured on the soundtrack of the 2001 movie American Desi.
In addition to performing in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Houston and Philadelphia, Penn Masala has also been to London, Toronto and Bombay.
“We’re extremely thrilled that the White House thought of us and reached out to us,” Amrute said the day before the performance.
“We’re pretty excited,” Dhir added, “and thankful that we get the opportunity to represent the Penn community as a whole.”