I’ve grown up listening to Bollywood music, and not too long ago I came across this wonderful group on Twitter called Brown Sugar. They are the “nation’s premiere co-ed South Asian collegiate a cappella group,” and they were founded in 1999 by two Northwestern University students. Soon after I heard a couple of their videos on YouTube, I was compelled to download their latest album, titled “Zamaane.” Can I just say that ever since I downloaded it I have been listening to it a lot? I just really fell in love with their sound and how they mixed South Asian and Western music.
I loved their music so much that I reached out to them for a phone interview. They happily agreed, and I can not tell you how wonderful my experience of talking with them was. They really are an amazing group of people, and their vocal abilities are off the charts. We covered a variety of topics, and you will learn everything from how they decide what songs to sing to what their pre-performance rituals are to how long it takes for the completion of one song on an album, AND more! I was so appreciative of the fact that they took time out of their schedule to chat with me.
Without further ado, here’s my fascinating interview with them. Different members of the group gave answers throughout the interview.
MC: How do you decide what songs to sing and what South Asian and Western songs to mix together?
Brown Sugar: Well, I guess every quarter we try to do a song selection where each member of the group picks three to four songs of a good mix of English and Hindi songs that they like and they bring it to the group and we kind of just listen to it as a group and go through one or two rounds of eliminating songs that we think will be good arranged a cappella versus what we think will sound good. And then I guess we take it from there. Arrangers pick songs that they’re interested in and we add songs to our repertoire like that.
MC: How would you say that Brown Sugar has grown from the first album to the latest album, Zamaane?
Brown Sugar: Well, I think something that’s awesome about the composition of Brown Sugar over the years is that interests in the group have just come from so many different places. When the group was founded in 1999 it was a couple of South Asian students who wanted to revisit their Indian roots and since then Brown Sugar has become a group on campus that doesn’t just attract South Asian students but students of a lot of different ethnicities and backgrounds. So, within our group we’re very diverse as a result of having so many different voices and musical interests, I think the biggest change that we’ve had over the years is just the styles that we experiment with…the styles that different people with different perspectives bring to the table. That’s the coolest thing I think about when people find different mashups and present them to the group, because people in the group are interested in R&B, Soul, Alternative, Rock, Folk music…all kinds of different genres. I think it’s really interesting what different people bring and as a result I think the diversity really impacts the changing of sound.
MC: Do you make a conscious effort to grow or do more with each album?
Brown Sugar: I think there’s always that aspect of challenging ourselves to do better either just our arranging or taking more risks with what we sing. The group’s been around for 15 years now, so things are changing and I think that’s one way we make ourselves better. Just by the new people coming into the group and by the way we interact with the group. Something that’s been around for so long but with new members that are 15 years removed from the original. I think that’s how we get better.
MC: Do the alumni still perform with you in concerts?
Brown Sugar: Yeah, during our spring, winter, and fall shows we usually have an alumni song so for any alumni in the audience that knows the song they can come up and sing with us. Outside of our anniversary shows it’s a good way to give homage to those past years that made us who we are.
MC: What are the qualities that someone has to have to get in the group?
Brown Sugar: I think one of the underlying principles of Brown Sugar is just that we have a very large passion for music and for singing…for what we do. I think that’s what brings us together. That’s the reason we do everything that we do. But on top of that we try to look for a lot of different qualities. Obviously, we want the musical ability there. But having a passion…having a driving force…having the initiative to look into new things…to grow [are important.] Because that’s what we’re doing as a group. We’re always growing. We’re looking for members that have that push. Coming in and really loving what we offer is a huge component to auditioning for Brown Sugar.
MC: How do you keep in touch with the latest in Bollywood?
Brown Sugar: I think it’s really amazing because Northwestern University has such a variety of different dance groups on campus and our South Asian Student Alliance has a really vibrant community so there’s a lot of programming on campus such as the annual SASA Show, which brings together Freshmen, Sophomores, Juniors, Seniors…and people from different dance teams. Brown Sugar also performs annually… and I think that because there’s such a vibrant culture and appreciation of Bollywood among the students and South Asian Student Alliance…I think it’s good because it keeps us on our toes. We’ll see a dance team dancing to a really cool song at the SASA Show or at one of their competitions and we’ll have a discussion as a group like “Oh, that was a really cool song.” So, I think there is this culture of groups mutually inspiring each other in terms of dance teams and Brown Sugar. So, it’s a really cool community dynamic that we have at Northwestern and it makes it really inspiring in terms of finding Bollywood songs and keeping up with what’s going on in the industry.
MC: Do you have any pre-performance rituals?
Brown Sugar: Usually we just try and get into a circle. We do our warmup and then afterwards we talk through the performance. What it actually means to us. A lot of our performances we’ve been doing for a while. Like the SASA show…our spring and winter show. They’re very meaningful to us because, one, we’ve been doing it for a long time. But we’ve also worked very hard for it. We have members in the group who have contributed to it for years. So, we kind of just talk through what the show means to us, and I think that really brings out an emotional aspect to it, which really helps us communicate the songs to the audience.
MC: I know that in 2009 you had a spring show called “Brown Sugar Goes Bollywood,” and now next week you’re having a show called “Brown Sugar Goes Back To Bollywood” for the group’s 15th anniversary. What can people expect from the show next week?
Brown Sugar: In 2009 for the 10th anniversary students who were in Brown Sugar at that time decided to do a show called “Brown Sugar Goes Bollywood.” So, it had a lot of different stereotypes and cliches of Bollywood that we all know and love. Since then, we decided that since this year is the 15th anniversary we would do a throwback to the 10th anniversary. So, I think people can definitely expect a lot of silly plots…the really over the top dramatic ones that you might find in a Bollywood movie and the different characters that we associate with Bollywood movies like really romantic couples, parent figures, young people falling in love and all that. So, audiences can expect a lot of cliches of Bollywood and also some of our favorite tracks that we have been singing over the past few years and have been a staple in our repertoire.
MC: Do you prefer the Bollywood songs of today like from the movie “Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani” or classics like from the movie “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai”?
Brown Sugar: It’s interesting that you said that because in our set this year we sang “Tujhe Yaad Na Meri Aayee” from “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” and then we also sang “Balam Pichkari” from “Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani.” So, something that’s really awesome about Brown Sugar is that whenever we do have song selection and are looking at different songs from different eras there’s always a good mix of classic Bollywood and the more contemporary stuff. I think because the industry is evolving so much and taking inspiration from Western styles of like Dubstep being incorporated into a lot of Bollywood music now and a lot of other similar Western inspired genres…we do have a good mix of trying the new things that the industry is pushing out but also kind of going back to the more classic lovable roots of the ’90s.
MC: Is there one particular song that you perform at every concert?
Brown Sugar: Yeah, I’d probably say the mix of “Shukran Allah” with Beyonce’s “Halo.” Me personally coming to the group…I’m a Sophomore now and my Freshman year when they sang that…Northwestern has a cappella fests where they just preview all the a cappella groups on campus…my prime memory from Freshman year is when Brown Sugar performed that and I think it’s one of our most iconic songs in our repertoire.
MC: Do you notice the fans singing along with all of your songs or is there one song that they always sing along to?
Brown Sugar: One of the songs is “Set Fire to the Rain” mixed with “Chand Sifarish.” When Adele hits that second chorus I can tell…everyone can tell that the audience is feeling it. It’s kind of a cool thing to see that they’re not listening passively…they’re engaging with what we are doing.
MC: What is one of the nicest things a fan has ever told you?
Brown Sugar: I think at least for me one of the best things is whenever some of my friends who are not necessarily that into Hindi music…when they hear a song they don’t necessarily know what the meaning is and they said that it made them feel something. Whether it’s like love or whatever the type of emotion. I think it really speaks to the power of music in general to reach throughout different languages and kind of unite people in general.
MC: Do you all have similar personalities?
Brown Sugar: I think the beauty of a cappella is so many people coming from different places but all being tied together by one thing but still having their individuality.
MC: How long does it generally take for the completion of one song on an album?
Brown Sugar: It’s a really interesting process. I think that it usually starts out with the selection process with the group coming together and looking at different mashups that have been suggested or different songs that have been suggested. From there the person who arranges it…really depending on their previous experience with arranging music…use a couple of different softwares to create arrangements. So, I would say it’s about 30-40 hours into creating an arrangement like in terms of notation and different voice parts and syllables and from there to do an entire song.
So, the way it works is that we go into a studio and each individual voice part…the women who sing soprano…the women who sing alto… and the men who sing tenor, baritone, and base all record individually with their parts. If you add up the time that it takes to do each individual part it would be about eight to nine hours. On our album, we have a song that’s a medley of different tracks from the movie “Lagaan.” That took a very long time to arrange and to record because it is a seven minute song. Whereas some of the shorter tracks that are clocking in at three minutes…it’s a much faster process. I’d say in the range of 40-45 total hours of arranging and then recording.
MC: Do you spend a lot of time rehearsing each week or do you set aside time each week for rehearsals?
Brown Sugar: We typically rehearse two to three times a week. It varies based on what we have upcoming in our schedule. If it’s a regular week we usually practice two to three times a week for two hours and then with the week before concerts we’ll have practice every night which can go five to six hours.
MC: Who are your musical inspirations?
Brown Sugar: Beyonce
MC: You can’t go wrong with her:
Brown Sugar: Me personally I think just what I’m listening to at the moment is what inspires me. People “make fun of me” for having so many arrangements going on at one time. Like the song by Janelle Monae…”PrimeTime”…it’s so good. How could you not want to arrange it?
[Someone else from the group] Coming into Brown Sugar has exposed me to the a cappella scene so I personally have gotten to love my fellow South Asian fusion a cappella groups. Chai-Town from the University of Illinois and also Penn Masala from the University of Pennsylvania. A lot of times you do see other groups do something and you feel inspired and you want to achieve that as well. The passion and the music they have… you want to emulate that. A lot of times you can bring back that energy and make something really special.
MC: You mentioned Penn Masala. How would you say you compare to them or other South Asian a cappella groups?
Brown Sugar: I think it’s really awesome because the South Asian a cappella group scene has become so big and so ingrained within a lot of collegiate cultures and all over the country. So, I think in general the entire South Asian a cappella community definitely should show a sense of solidarity, which is awesome. We all kind of look out for each other…go to different concerts. It’s just a really cool South Asian a cappella diaspora in the U.S. As long as it’s popular and something people are listening to, it’s awesome for the entire community.
[Someone else from the group] What brings us together is the passion for music and whenever we perform with the other groups that’s always the thing that binds us. We always become very close with the other groups because of the fact that we’re there for the same reason. We love being around other groups…we’re inspired by them. We love feeding off their energy and seeing what they can do as well.
MC: I know there’s always this thing about who is the better Khan. Who do you think is the better Khan?
Brown Sugar: Definitely Shah Rukh Khan. They call him King Khan of Bollywood for a reason.
MC: What are things that people can look forward to from the group this year?
Brown Sugar: We have our spring show next week. That’s taking up the majority of our time for right now. We’re looking to put out hopefully a music video for one of our more popular songs. Hoping to get that out in the summer perhaps…that’s still in the works. As for the fall, next year we’re hoping to do some fundraising and get enough money together to go to competitions hopefully in the West coast. Hopefully that works out.
MC: Do you have a message for your fans?
Brown Sugar: We totally love them. We want them to keep listening to us. We listen to ourselves a lot as well as other groups. We definitely want them to come to our show. It’s our 15th anniversary and we’ve been working very hard for 15 years. Hopefully, they can come out, show some support, and go home with a happy smile.
And with that, we came to the end of our interview. I thanked them for their time, and told them I would love to see them in concert one day. It was a pleasure speaking with all of them, and I can’t wait to hear what they have next in store.
To order the album and to learn more about the group, please go to www.brownsugar.nu