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Dhunki A Cappella

The University of Texas at Dallas

Spellbound (2018)

3.3

April 16, 2019

Tuning / Blend 4.0
Energy / Intensity 3.0
Innovation / Creativity 4.0
Soloists 3.0
Sound / Production 3.7
Repeat Listenability 3.0
Tracks
1 Adiye / Feeling Good 4.0
2 Pehla Nasha / Thinking Out Loud 3.3
3 Tujhe Bhula Diya / Apologize 3.7
4 Saiyaan / A Thousand Years 3.0
5 Uptown Funk / Dil Chahta Hai 3.7

Recorded 2015 – 2016
Total time: 21:13, 5 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Adiye / Feeling Good 4
2 Pehla Nasha / Thinking Out Loud 4
3 Tujhe Bhula Diya / Apologize 3
4 Saiyaan / A Thousand Years 3
5 Uptown Funk / Dil Chahta Hai 4

Following in the steps of the group's listed influences —  Penn Masala and Chai-Town  —  Spellbound is Dhunki A Cappella's big introduction to the South Asian A Cappella stage. And I have to say, these singers have stepped onto the stage with quite an impact.  

Each of the entries on this release is a mashup of a song from two cultures: a piece from South Asia combined with a more popular Western pop track. While listening to South Asian groups in the past, I have noted that some of them don't integrate or mix the two tracks well when they use this approach, moving more from one track to the other and making me wonder why they bothered putting the tracks together in the first place. I don't have this complaint with Dhunki's work — in each of the five tracks, arrangers Samarth Srinivasan, Arjun Aggarwal, and Vidya Menon have done a great job integrating the two pieces together. One piece may give more focus to just one of the cultures at certain points, but the other isn't neglected entirely. In Uptown Funk / Dil Chahta Hai, for example, you can still hear samplings of the chorus and the walking bass line throughout the Hindi verses. These little reminders throughout all five tracks give a more rounded listening experience that I think other groups (South Asian or not) can take lessons from when putting together mashups.  

My favorite track is Adiye / Feeling Good, where soloists Ahana Yogesh and Victor Vinh deliver outstanding solos of passion and great little vocal runs that have me nodding in approval. But the biggest shoutout on this track has to go to Harshal Mehta, who plays one of the most convincing vocal trumpets I've ever heard. Honestly, I had to check the credits multiple times to make sure that there wasn't a trumpet player listed. Vocal trumpet is certainly not easy (I would be lying if I said that I could pull it off — I can barely beatbox), so to vocalize this as cleanly as he does is quite impressive. On the flip side, Tujhe Bhula Diya / Apologize doesn't land as well for me as some of the other tracks, and I believe this has to do with the key that it was arranged in. While it works for the South Asian piece, there are some moments (particularly in the verses) where the solo on Apologize feels a little strained as it gets higher. If the key was dropped a little bit, I believe that the song as a whole would have blended and flowed better than it does. That's the struggle with putting multiple songs together — if the key works for one of the songs, but not the other, it can bring down the listening experience of the entire track.

That being said, well done to Dhunki A Cappella for a wonderful first EP, and I hope that you can keep up the good work for the next one. And, as a side note, I hope that we see other groups across the country, not just South Asian or Jewish a cappella groups, take the steps to combine songs of different cultures like Dhunki has. It does not have to be a whole album or the whole premise of the group, but learning about different cultures and stories through language and music is just one way to make the world seem a little smaller. And that can only be a great thing for everyone.

 


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Adiye / Feeling Good 4
2 Pehla Nasha / Thinking Out Loud 3
3 Tujhe Bhula Diya / Apologize 5
4 Saiyaan / A Thousand Years 3
5 Uptown Funk / Dil Chahta Hai 3

Dhunki A Cappella from UT Dallas released a compilation of five mashups featuring Western and South Asian songs. Was this a good idea? It's obviously done by other groups out there and for me, it's a great way to introduce a unique flavor to music that the Western world is accostumed to. I would like to laud the arrangers' ideal usage of tempo, rhythm, and functional harmony in each song presented on this EP. Spellbound is an apt album title since I'm more or less spellbound with every rewind while listening to this set. 

Adiye / Feeling Good kickstarts the EP with a dramatic one minute intro before the 12/8 groove kicks in. The track has a couple step-up modulations that takes the song up a few notches before ending it again in a slow down. Soloists Ahana Yogesh and Victor Vinh have a vocal chemistry that works pretty well in the mashup. I like the idea that the track sounds like a sing-off battle between the two soloists; it turns out both cute and effective.

Next, Pehla Nasha / Thinking Out Loud is one of the weaker songs on the EP. I think the key is too low for the Thinking Out Loud male soloist. It also sounds a bit hushed contrary to the message of the lyrics. It's really musically pleasant and palatable, but the group fails to give justice to Ed Sheeran's conviction on the original.

The third track, Tujhe Bhula Diya / Apologize, is probably my favorite track. The arrangement is superb, the vocal percussion is well-executed, and soloists Divya Narayanan, Vidya Menon, Samarth Srinivasan, and Ajith Varghese are able to deliver their parts without sounding chaotic even though the arrangement has a lot going on with rhythmic vocables and harmonic layers. This is by far the best a cappella mashup that I've heard to date. The unexpected song shifts and overlaps are used effectively here, too.

Saiyaan / A Thousand Years is next in the lineup and again, not the best in the compilation. The chords somehow work. But the tempo feels too rushed for one of the songs (A Thousand Years). It kinda loses the spirit of a fused track because of this.

And the last track, Uptown Funk / Dil Chahta Hai, becomes a cliché among the four others on this EP. The spellbinding effect starts too debilitately. It may be that the overall energy of this last track is not as high, or the lower octave doubling of the stanza lines drag down the energy of the higher vocals.

The overall idea of a mashup EP is great. However, a lot of factors come into consideration to make every arrangement a hit. Just because two songs sound similar, doesn't mean that they could work well as a mashup. Music has complicated rules that are not always written in the books — listeners always get to judge if a release is a hit or a miss. To me, Spellbound is a mixture of both.

 


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Adiye / Feeling Good 4
2 Pehla Nasha / Thinking Out Loud 3
3 Tujhe Bhula Diya / Apologize 3
4 Saiyaan / A Thousand Years 3
5 Uptown Funk / Dil Chahta Hai 4

A good mashup song should be greater than the sum of its parts. Otherwise, what's the point when the individual songs could simply be performed individually to greater success? Dhunki A Cappella's Spellbound is an EP comprised entirely of mashups that just barely fulfill this expectation.

Hindi/Tamil mashups with English pop songs are not uncommon in modern a cappella — it's been the hallmark of University of Pennsylvania's Penn Masala for a while, as one example. That doesn't make new ones any less welcome, of course, and Dhunki's mashup choices are justified by how surprisingly well the individual songs blend together. I really appreciate Spellbound's liner notes which include lyrics and translations. Reading them while listening is really rewarding because the mashups work well both on the musical and lyrical level. It's endearing reading along to Pehla Nasha / Thinking Out Loud as the former's message of inebriation from experiencing a new love reflects on the latter's expression of promised love in old age. Every mashup on here has a similarly nuanced interplay between the two songs. Tujhe Bhula Diya / Apologize are different angles on a similarly melancholic take of a bitterly ended relationship, and Uptown Funk / Dil Chahta Hai is a less nuanced but equally justified blend of fun and celebration.

It's hard to fault the group's blend or intonation, and the production is crisp and clear all the way through. There is, however, a lack of presence coming from the ensemble on most songs. The background singing is solid but not "fun", for lack of a better term. This feeds back into my opening point about the EP's songs just barely fulfilling their expectation — the ideas are great but Dhunki A Cappella does not commit to them with as much conviction as one may hope for.

The best place to look at when addressing this in the future is the arrangements. Right now, they are serviceable enough to back up the soloists, but nothing more. Pehla Nasha / Thinking Out Loud, for example, has so much more room for a heartfelt and dynamic shape in the ensemble, but instead mostly feels repetitive and stagnant. Giving your singers more fun parts to sing makes it way easier for them to have palpable fun singing them. And when that happens, the doors to artistry and unbridled energy open. Uptown Funk / Dil Chahta Hai's second half is probably the closest the album gets to this — the group's restraints begin to come off and contagious energy begins to flow through the EP just a bit too late.

One more important but non-musical critique — while I praised the liner notes earlier for including lyrics and translations, I need to stress the importance of properly crediting original songwriters. The liner notes provided unfortunately do not include any original credits — only the arrangers and soloists involved in the group's covers.

Dhunki A Cappella definitely has a knack for good mashup choices and faithful adaptations of Hindi/Tamil music. I hope the musicians will capitalize on this more in the future and bring their arrangements to life with far more creativity and dynamic energy. Spellbound works well enough, but the interesting ideas backing it only make me yearn for even better from Dhunki A Cappella.

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Spellbound streams on Spotify and Google Play

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