Gathe Raho: South Asian a cappella in the Midwest

Last week seven a cappella teams from around the United States gathered in Iowa City, Iowa. They warmed up, did dress rehearsals at the venue, and prepared for a chance to advance to the national competition. 

But unlike a typical a cappella group, they also sang in Hindi. 

Gathe Raho performance from 2019. Photo Credit: Gathe Raho Facebook.

Welcome to the world of Gathe Raho, where your favourite pop songs are blended alongside popular South Asian music and set to choreography. 

A brief history 

This niche category of South Asian a cappella was created by Penn Masala in 1996. Today most college campuses have their own South Asian a cappella teams. Since their founding, Penn Masala has created 11 full-length studio albums, performed for President Obama, and toured globally.

In 2005 the University of California at Berkeley created the first competition for the genre. 

Four years later, the University of Iowa created the second South Asian a cappella competition, titled Gathe Raho, or ‘keep singing’. But unlike California, which is historically diverse, the American Midwest and especially the state of Iowa is remarkably not diverse. 

According to a 2017 census, only 2.6% of the state was of Asian ancestry, and of that small percentage, 18.4% is South Asian. And yet, Gathe Raho is in the twelfth year of its existence. 

An anomaly 

“Most events at the time were potlucks or gatherings and didn’t have a footprint on the community,” Ankit Patel, a Gathe Raho co-founder explained. “We wanted to bring people in and increase curiosity with our events.”

The University of Iowa’s Indian Student Alliance, or ISA, already created Nachte Raho, the South Asian dancing competition, in 2003. In 2008, they wanted to make another large cultural event.

The ISA president at the time, Arun Gupta, decided to create a competition for South Asian a cappella. Patel, who was part of the university’s all-male a cappella group, jumped onto the project. 

From there, it was, as Patel put it, “flying by the seat of our pants.” Fall of 2008 was dedicated to researching active South Asian a cappella groups, sending out emails, and going through audition videos. Then ISA turned to the local community to find venues, sound technicians, and judges from both the university’s school of music and the South Asian community.

For the first event, ISA received about fifteen audition videos and cut down the final competing teams to seven. And then from around the country, teams flew into the Iowa winter to compete. 

Traction and growth of South Asian A Cappella

The community took note of Gathe Raho and excitement took off upon seeing how successful the first competition went. Local radio stations and newspapers interviewed ISA and the organization quickly realized that the event could become a staple for the community.

On the heels of the first event, Patel created Iowa Agni, the university’s own South Asian a cappella team, who performed as an exhibition act for the second Gathe Raho. Since its founding, Agni has become an established a cappella group and last year performed in the Shruti SingStrong competition.

Iowa Agni performing. Photo Credit: Gathe Raho Facebook.

After Gathe Raho, five more South Asian a cappella competitions popped up along the coasts. To combine the events together, in 2016 the Association of South Asian A Cappella created the national competition All American Awaaz, a circuit style competition where each university competition became a bid point.

This year marks the fourth year of All American Awaaz and the twelfth year of Gathe Raho, hosted where it was first hosted, in the historic Englert Theatre. 

What Gathe Raho means 

When asked to speak on Gathe Raho, Jordan Samuel, this year’s Gathe director speaks with pride. 

“Gathe Raho unites Western contemporary music with the South Asian music I grew up with,“ he said. “A clear expression of the intricacies of the second generation South Asian experience.” 

He didn’t expect to find an event like Gathe Raho at the University of Iowa, which is predominantly white. The event and others like it have helped him feel seen and connected. 

“Events like Gathe Raho empower and unite people of South Asian descent, validate cultural identities, and grant awareness towards the rest of the University of Iowa community,” he explained. 

This proves that the original hopes at the founding of the event have come true.

Winners of Gathe Raho 2019 celebrating. Photo Credit: Gathe Raho Facebook.

“The hope is that the event will allow someone to learn of the South Asian culture, partake in it, and be inspired,” Patel explained.

And indeed, it has. From its unlikely location to the growth of the event, Gathe Raho continues to create a unique experience in the heart of the Midwest.

Here are clips from previous Gathe Raho winners:

Gathe Raho 2016 winners, Nuttin’ But Vocals
Gathe Raho 2017 winners, UMiami Tufaan

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