Penn Masala, DJ Rekha and the…White House? [Updated]

My jaw dropped when I saw this tweet in my feed today from the renowned DJ Rekha.

@djrekha Penn Masala performing at White House. Beatboxing and singing Ayesha in Hindi n English. Box of Diwali sweets on every seat.

I quickly jumped on the White House’s live feed to see if I could see for myself. Here, watch for yourself.

Penn Masala at White House.jpgWhat could be the occasion to bring DJ Rekha to the White House and get prime seating to see Desi a cappella group Penn Masala perform?

President Barack Obama is re-creating a federal panel to address concerns of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders and to work on improving their health, education and economic status…The panel was created during the Clinton administration. But it expired during George W. Bush’s presidency and was not reauthorized.

During the East Room ceremony, Obama also observed Diwali, or the “Festival of Lights,” a holiday celebrated across faiths in India.[ap]

I jumped online in time to see a maharaj sing ‘asato maah’ and Obama light the fire with a candle. Video from today found and posted above and the folks at AAPI Momentum have promised us videos from tonight’s celebration. I have a personal request for a photo of DJ Rekha, Penn Masala, and Kal Penn. Just FYI. Since I can’t show you the video of what Obama said, let me share excerpts of what he said (full text available here).Obama Signing White House AAPI Bill.jpg> Our AAPI communities have roots that span the globe, but they embody a rich diversity, and a story of striving and success that are uniquely American…

But focusing on all of these achievements doesn’t tell the whole story, and that’s part of why we’re here. It’s tempting, given the strengths of the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, for us to buy into the myth of the “model minority,” and to overlook the very real challenges that certain Asian American and Pacific Islander communities are facing: from health disparities like higher rates of diabetes and Hepatitis B; to educational disparities that still exist in some communities — high dropout rates, low college enrollment rates; to economic disparities — higher rates of poverty in some communities, and barriers to employment and workplace advancement in others…

Some Asian American and Pacific Islanders, particularly new Americans and refugees, still face language barriers. Others have been victims of unthinkable hate crimes, particularly in the months after September 11th — crimes driven by ignorance and prejudice that are an affront to everything that this nation stands for….

And that’s why I’m signing this executive order today, reestablishing the advisory commission and White House initiative created by President Clinton 10 years ago. Because when any of our citizens — (applause) — when any of our citizens are unable to fulfill their potential due to factors that have nothing to do with their talent, character, or work ethic, then I believe there’s a role for our government to play…

This coming Saturday, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and some Buddhists, here in America and around the world, will celebrate this holiday by lighting Diyas, or lamps, which symbolize the victory of light over darkness, and knowledge over ignorance. And while this is a time of rejoicing, it’s also a time for reflection, when we remember those who are less fortunate and renew our commitment to reach out to those in need. [whitehouse]

I gotta say, it’s great to have a President that knows the APIA community and the Desi community like this. With the bill signed, hopefully we can hold the government accountable to reinvest in our community once more.

Obama Waiting to Light Fire.jpg Courtesy of SAALT.

DJ Rekha at White House.jpg DJ Rekha, Deepa Iyer from SAALT and Vanita Gupta a the White House. Courtesy of SAALT.

Obama Lighting the Fire.jpg courtesy of SAALT.

Penn Masala at White House 2.jpg Penn Masala photo courtesy of Priscilla Huang of NAPAWF.

Thanks to Naomi Underwood for the photos of Penn Masala and Obama signing in first two photos!!! If anyone else has photos from today, please send them over!

This entry was posted in Events, History, Issues, Photos, Religion by Taz. Bookmark the permalink.

About Taz

Taz is an activist, organizer and writer based in California. She is the founder of South Asian American Voting Youth (SAAVY), curates MutinousMindState.tumblr.com and blogs at TazzyStar.blogspot.com. Follow her at twitter.com/tazzystar

56 thoughts on “Penn Masala, DJ Rekha and the…White House? [Updated]

  1. Omg. So amazing. We’re going to run out of things to be bitter about :)

    (If I’m too too hope-y and that turns out to be not the case, I still win! I’m full of win today!)

  2. So proud! I love penn masala and the song aysha but not sure if it was the right pick for the occasion. I agree with cicatrix, “we’re going to run out of things to be bitter about” :)

  3. Great post, Taz. Thank you.

    It might be worth mentioning that, President Obama is the first U.S. president to personally celebrate Diwali in the White House. (G.W. Bush recognized Diwali but, wasn’t around to celebrate it). We’re turnin’ new leaves, new leaves . . .

  4. I too am proud! Although I regret to say I found something to be bitter about:

    “During the East Room ceremony, Obama also observed Diwali, or the “Festival of Lights,” a holiday celebrated across faiths in India.” [ap]

    Dear Associated Press—Diwali is also celebrated by a bunch of people WHO DON’T LIVE IN INDIA! The White House got it right—”Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and some Buddhists, here in America and around the world”—so why didn’t you?

    That said, GO WHITE HOUSE! Seriously.

  5. Thanks for the video and the post. He really hits nail on head with his comments about model minority. Great words, Mr. President.

  6. The priest looks really really authentic!

    from health disparities like higher rates of diabetes and Hepatitis B

    I can understand that we are susceptible to diabetes probably due to our sedentary life styles but why Hepatitis? (I think it is more of a east-asian thing than south-asian?)

  7. on —The priest looks really really authentic!

    he IS authentic! He currently works at the Shiva Vishnu Temple in Lanham, MD. He has been there for the past 15 years at least (based on how long I have been seeing him doing pooja at the temple) I am sure the temple site has his name and details- since none of the press/media sources seem to have given that.

  8. Shiva Vishnu Temple

    That would make the priests confused (ATCP – American Temple Confused Priest :-) , whether to wear the tilak/nama (Vertical line – for Vishnu) or Vibuthi/Bhasma (Horizontal line – for Shiva) on their forehead!

  9. Of thousands of devotional songs and another few thousand songs on overcoming struggles, good vs. evil, and so many more appropriate songs, all Penn Masala could find to sing was a love song and that too “Ayesha”, a non-Hindu name? (Disclaimer: this has nothing to do against Muslims. My best friend is Muslim, whose name also happens to be Aisha.)

    And c’mon, don’t give ABCDs a bad name…after all, it was a first in so many ways and these guys didn’t represent! Here are some ideas of what they could have done to make it look and feel festive AND desi – 1) wear desi outfits (it’s not like they don’t own any desi threads…check out their website), 2) sing a desi song…(coz really, is it necessary to sing in English at such occasions?), 3) sing some shlokas acapella…(now THAT would have been really cool and awesome!).

    A part of my is really upset at Penn Masala because singing in English and a song like Ayesha only makes it look like we’re still pandering to the colonial masters (in this case U.S. masters). I thought we were done pleasing the first world nations…guess not.

    All the points go to Obama. Penn Masala…none. Maybe next time, if there’s one?

  10. The priest’s name is Narayanachar. He is the senior priest at the Shiva Vishnu Temple in Lanham. He has been the for around 17 yrs.

  11. A part of my is really upset at Penn Masala because singing in English and a song like Ayesha only makes it look like we’re still pandering to the colonial masters (in this case U.S. masters). I thought we were done pleasing the first world nations…guess not.

    If you’re a performer you generally perform for the benefit of your audience. They probably thought the crowd, which was a multicultural one at an event for the broader AAPI category (rather than a specifically Desi one) would have enjoyed something more cosmopolitan. The point wasn’t to showcase Indian culture, after all. It was to be the night’s entertainment.

  12. I actually had no real desire to celebrate Diwali this year (because I am so many miles away from the place I consider home and the people that I really love) until watching this. Now I realize the importance of celebrating it-no matter where you are. Happy Diwali….and thanks for posting this….this is awesome!

  13. This was cool and exciting but I really need to read up on the AAPI initiative that the Prez signed b/c I don’t know what it’s really about.

    I don’t understand Penn Masala’s choice – yes they were entertainers, but Asian entertainers, and I wish they could have chosen a different song, but they did a great job in their singing.

    That’s cool that they picked one of the priests from the Shiva Vishnu Temple in MD; I’ve been there many times for weddings and worship.

    Mallus don’t celebrate Diwali, but I’ve appropriated Diwali as my pan-Indian tradition; I can’t escape that in the USA, where at work I have other Indians telling me “happy Diwali” and I don’t want to go into a speech about Diwali isn’t a kerala tradition (right? Are there any Mallus that disagree with me?) and it’s an excuse to socialize with lovely desi friends. lol. So happy diwali, and also happy Onam, as it has just passed.

  14. Akash, would that just make the priest a wonderful synthesis of the religion that is Hinduism- with a possible specialization in Shiva or Vishnu related pooja? (and not confused)

    Also in regard to Pennmasala’s song choice- yes it probably would have been better if they more carefully picked their song choice but below are a few factors that could have resulted in singing ayesha:

    its October, new members of Pennmasala only recently finished learning the groups classic songs. It is possible during midterm heyday and in trying to allow all members to perform pennmasala did not have that much of a spread to choose from.

    this particular arrangement of Ayesha is kinda what pennmasala is KNOWN for- at least among the circle of their south asian peer group. Other south Asian acappella groups all over the nation have either copied, borrowed, mimicked it- generally giving pennmasala props.

    other songs the group is known for include their fantastic arrangement of Tere Bin/wait for you, and mehebooba/With or Without You- both fantastic but also vocally far more challenging/ risky than Ayesha. Also since the group does have the status of a 90′s heartthrob boy band, most of their popular songs (as can be seen by the listing on youtube) are specifically targeted love songs with “make a girl wanna love you” vocals. I would not be surprised to find that universal song, like yeh taara from swadesh, so perfectly appropriate for the White House even exists in their repertoire

    In regard to the colonial masters/incorporation of english issue- Pennmasala is UPenn’s premeire acappella group, a reputation not just confined to the south asian population on campus. They did not get there by singing only in hindi. The concept of south asian acappella across most college campuses is the idea of fusion, not just english-hindi but english-any south asian language song. Ektaal performed a combination of Faith Hill’s Breath with a Bangladeshi song Kothai for their Christmas performance last year and Khamaj did a english-tamil mix once. Raagapella often times incorporates carnatic and hindustani into western beats. Finding two songs of completely different languages and sometimes music systems that go together and then writing compositions, parts, and translating them into acappella is an EXTREMELY difficult task. Props again to the many many groups of south asian acappella who take time and effort our of their studies for this extracirricular. I strongly suggest youtubing other groups not just pennmasala for fun to see the talent and creativity that is out there!

    We have the Sonu Nigams, Udit Narayan’s and Shreya Goshal’s to serenade us in just one language. Also the art form, I personally feel encapsulates the multi-lingual. multi-cultural nature of today’s South Asian youth and helps spread awareness, understanding, and enjoyment of south asian music to non-south asian populations.

  15. Mallus don’t celebrate Diwali, but I’ve appropriated Diwali as my pan-Indian tradition; I can’t escape that in the USA, where at work I have other Indians telling me “happy Diwali” and I don’t want to go into a speech about Diwali isn’t a kerala tradition (right? Are there any Mallus that disagree with me?) and it’s an excuse to socialize with lovely desi friends. lol. So happy diwali, and also happy Onam, as it has just passed.

    This Mallu’s Malayalee family celebrates Deepavali. It’s a big deal in Kerala. All the Malayalam channels have the celebs come on to wish everyone a happy Deepavali, etc.

  16. I strongly suggest youtubing other groups not just pennmasala for fun to see the talent and creativity that is out there!

    Yeah acapella! Thanks brownsmithie!

  17. Small point. The song is “Aicha” not “Ayesha.” And I only know that because I’ve been listening to that CD every day since it came out. I wish that were a joke.

  18. Taz: This is what my friend living in Zurich had to say about the White House singers:

    Dear Bhasker,

    I am surprised to hear the American Deshis singing an European (precisely French)-North African (precisely Algerian) song ‘Aicha’, partly also in Hindi.

    The lyrics to “Aicha”, written in French by the singer songwriter Jean-Jacques Goldman, which was in the charts in many countries of Western Europe, are about a man’s lament that his love Aïcha does not notice him, even though he offers her everything, even his life. In the end, Aïcha answers he should keep his treasure, that she’s worth more and does not want to live in a cage, even a solid gold one, but equal rights and respect which form true love.

    Original song was sung in Arabic by Khaled Hadj Brahim, better known as Khaled, a raï singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist born in Sidi-El-Houari in Oran Province of Algeria. Algerian Islamic fundamentalists were violently opposed to raï because of its sometimes irreverent tone and the fact that raï singers freely addressed issues considered taboo in Islam, like sex, drugs, and alcohol. Another reason is also the songwriter Jean-Jacques Goldman, who is a French singer–songwriter. He is hugely popular in the French-speaking world, and in 2003 was the second-highest-grossing French pop singer, after Johnny Hallyday. Born in Paris to immigrant Polish Jewish parents, Alter Mojze Goldman and Ruth Ambrunn, Goldman was the third of four children.

    So much behind the nice & beautiful song ‘Aicha’.

    By the way, it was nice to hear Obama speaking about Diwali.

    Thanks for the link anyway.

    Kind regards

    Jyotiprasad Majumder

  19. Khaled, Taha, Cheikha Rimitti – I love raï. Thanks to Jyotiprasad Majumder for the background info. Wish the Penn Masala singer hadn’t been too nervous to give Aicha some soul.

  20. Lifelong wrote:

    The priest’s name is Narayanachar. He is the senior priest at the Shiva Vishnu Temple in Lanham. He has been the for around 17 yrs.

    Guys, do you really think it’s a good idea to be posting the priest’s information like that? Isn’t that a violation of his privacy?

  21. cicatrix wrote:

    Omg. So amazing. We’re going to run out of things to be bitter about :)

    You want things to feel bitter about? OK, you asked for it:

    Hope this helps :-)

  22. Laksmi, Thanks for clearing that up, I had no idea. Kudos to Obama for representing the AAPI. btw…What’s with DJ Rekha’s get-up? You’d think she’d at least tidy up to go to the White House and meet the president..lol

  23. This Mallu’s Malayalee family celebrates Deepavali. It’s a big deal in Kerala. All the Malayalam channels have the celebs come on to wish everyone a happy Deepavali, etc.

    It may be a big deal now but it’s not traditional for many Malyalis to celebrate Divali. I didn’t even know what it was until I was 6. I only knew Onam and Vishu.

  24. did anyone else catch the irony between Obama saying ‘Too often, Asian American and Pacific Islanders are all lumped into one category, so we don’t have accurate numbers reflecting the challenges of each individual community. Smaller communities in particular can get lost, their needs and concerns buried in a spreadsheet.’ and then IMMEDIATELY establishing something which conflates them, the ‘President’s Advisory Commission and White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders’?? The AAPI momentum page (if related to this declaration) offers no details on what such a commission/committee would do, how it would (or wouldn’t) conflate these groups, etc. There are so many different social, political, ethnic, linguistic, caste-based, religious, regional and national differences within this AAPI heading that I am skeptical that they can even attempt to circumscribe the group without haplessly also failing to accurately represent most, if not all of the people within them. Is this, then, a useful commission/initiative for Obama to create/reestablish? Seems to be more newsworthy in the moment (and what a great moment Diwali makes) than actually useful to these communities, or to the larger nation vis-a-vis issues of discrimination, and reconciling or at least acknowledging voters differences with respect to these types of issues.

  25. Good post Taz – I did think that AAPI is too big a group to be lumped together. The big guys are going to feel slighted. But its a good staring point.

  26. The purohit who chanted the sloka and conducted the lighting of the lamp is a Vaishnava purohit. Just as he would always wear a Sricharanam (colloquially termed a namam in Tamizh) a Smarta purohit would wear the horizontal stripes of vibhuti or ash. There is almost no reason why any Smarta or Vaishnava (what to say of purohits) would ever choose to exchange their respective marks. If they must a Vaishnava who receives vibhuti at a kovil will appy it to the bridge of nose, but never horizontally to the forehead. Similarly a Smarta who receives the sricharanam or the white clay paste that is handed out at Perumal kovils (like the Tirupati Balaji mandir) will smear it just as it is vibhuti. Siva Vishnu mandirs aren’t rare in India, but as a rule they belong to the present times. There is one in T.Nagar in Chennai. And then there is one in Lake Gardens, Kolkata – the latter though is more of a Murugan-Ramar kovil. But years ago (>35) there was some sort of a dispute within the Tamizh group managing the kovil, because a of which a wall was erected within the premises separating the two sannidanams Visitors of course are free to visit both sannidanams or any one of their choice. The purohits the Smarta and th Vaishnava are known to be on talking terms. In the mandirs in North America, the S.Indian (i.e., Tamizh, Telugu, and Kannada) Smarta and Vaishnava purohits work together, in concert with purohits from Gujarat or Punjab. The Namboothiris are another matter. The ones at the Siva Vishnu Mandir in Lanham, can be foul and rude, even to the other purohits.

    Special Archanais for the US, Barry, McCain, even the Fourth do happen at US mandirs. I am OK with lighting the lamp but am leery about having a purohit in the White House. Dipavali in S.India is an informal occasion and a puja is not mandated. And given that Dipavali is special for Hindus and the Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists as well, the WH having a purohit officiate makes Dipavali a little too restricted.

  27. Ok, so my family never celebrated Diwali (which makes me sad actually) but as an adult, I’ve been slowly incorporating desi holidays into my life. The local temple is hosting a Diwali celebration on Sunday and I think I might go. Also I found an entry on the internet that said it actually starts tomorrow. So, here are a couple of questions for everybody: what day does diwali start this year? How many days does it last? when can I start celebrating it?

    thanks

  28. Correction: both are great songs, but obviously their best set of vocals wasn’t represented. First impressions, first impressions. The quality of the performance could also be due to a “new” set of PM singers. Their presence at Obama’s pad is still priceless. Go Penn Masala!

  29. @SemiDM – Diwali is supposed to fall on the “no moon day” which is officially the 17th. I’ve never been quite sure if it’s supposed to go from sunrise to sunrise or sunset to sunset the way Jewish Holidays do though.

    As for when to celebrate, I imagine there is some leeway. We are an easy-going people when it comes to punctuality. I brought in a box of munchkins for my coworkers (because laddoos are hard to find in DC) today. I’ll probably light a candle or something tomorrow as I don’t know of any public events going on in the metro-accessible DC area.

  30. And given that Dipavali is special for Hindus and the Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists as well, the WH having a purohit officiate makes Dipavali a little too restricted.

    I find that celebrating deepavali as a staid and somber occasion kind of takes away from it’s true spirit, which is to eat laddoos (or some other swwet) and blow stuff up. Hooray for firecrackers!

  31. yogafire, thanks for the info….I love laddoos (and any reason to eat them). Plus, my middle name is Lakshmi, so I thought I should get in on this holiday ;0)

  32. It’s really nice to see Penn State get recognition for something other than football (and that it’s desi a capella is just icing on the cake!).

  33. @jyotsana: what’s worse he’s a Y-namam wearing priest, not U! How dare they have a thengalai in the white house and leave the vadagalais out! (obscure tamil brahmin sect references :P ) I demand a U-wearing priest be present at any future white house hindu-ish rituals. I’m outraged!

    sarcasm aside, the Y vs U thing is incredibly trivial but when it came to which one the idol at tirupathi would wear, it went all the way to the supreme court of india. they settled on a compromise between the two..

  34. Nope. They are not Nittany Lions :-( They are from U.Penn. An Iyengar priest in the White House!! Hurrraaahhhh!!!!!!! I guess I will settle for the Tengalai priest for now and ask for Vadagalai priests in the future ;-)

  35. It is very heartening to learn of our President Obama celebrating Diwali in the White House. At this time of the year, we must never forget that thousands of our fellow Hindus (and Christians and Muslims) Tamils are languishing in the refugee camps in North and North East Sri Lanka, while the Sri Lankan govt are killing and maiming those boys, esp above the age of 16 years old; and girls get raped daily in these camps and villages they had overrun. And to the departed civilians who were killed during this Civil War – numbering about 50, 000 just in the last one year – by carpet bombing, artillery, etc. by the Sri Lankan Army. And to the Sinhalese journalists and editors who were kidnapped and killed by the regime, making Sri Lanka one of the most dangerous places to work for journalists, in the World.

    We must not forget all of them, esp at this time of the year.

    GOD BLESS THEM.

  36. while the Sri Lankan govt are killing and maiming those boys

    This is completely off topic, moderators please see that this issue is not played in all the forums no matter what the topic is.

    Laksmi, Thanks for clearing that up, I had no idea. Kudos to Obama for representing the AAPI.

    Atheist AA’s are screaming “what about us, Obama?”

  37. Indian Americans get excited because they grew up in a society that knew nothing about India and where “Indian” more often than not refers to Native Americans, denying them even a name. So they think they’re finally getting recognition that they deserve. I’d hate to break the mood here but a U.S. President’s schedule is utterly congested with events like these, so much so that they have no real meaning. It’s nothing more than superficial pandering to constituents from a guy who knows next to nothing about what Diwali actually is and the speech was simply written by some professional. These sort of things go on (and prevent actual work being done) because they somehow do work and people feel that the President is actually focusing on them (see the above comments from Indian Americans being “so proud”).

    Anyway, happy Diwali to you all.

  38. Gautam S, I’d say that including Diwali (and other non-Christian) religious events on the President’s “utterly congested” calendar actually sends a powerful message to all Americans that those who celebrate Diwali are just as American, just as much a part of this country’s culture, as those who do not.

    Just because a White House Diwali celebration is symbolic (“all religions are equally valid”) does not mean that it is also meaningless. Yes, to have important non-Christian holidays recognized by the Christian First Family is symbolic. And you’re right, it is not the same thing as having the President make specific pledges about specific policies to specific communities. But neither is the White House celebration of Christmas.