Mandolin maestro's humble beginnings

26 September 2010 - 02:00 By SANTHAM PILLAY

Thirty-one years ago, mandolin player Uppalapu Srinivas performed his first concert in front of only 15 people.

But, by the end of his set at the acclaimed Sri Thyagaraja Aradhana Carnatic Music Festival, the nine-year-old had won thousands of fans.

The 40-year-old musician is now acknowledged internationally as a master of the electric mandolin.

Speaking in Durban ahead of his three-cities tour this week, Srinivas said he had not been discouraged by the small audience at his debut performance.

"When I saw 15 people, it didn't affect me. I was confident and excited that I was going to have my chance. Towards the end, there were between three and four thousand people," he said.

Srinivas has been accompanied on his SA tour by his younger brother and fellow mandolin player, Rajesh.

The brothers have performed in Durban and Cape Town and will make their final appearance tonight in the Linder Auditorium in Johannesburg.

The pair collaborated with the KZN and Johannesburg philharmonic orchestras.

Srinivas began playing the stringed instrument when he was only six. Born in the southern Indian town of Palakol in Andhra Pradesh, he said it was no easy task being a child mandolin player, as he was constantly challenged over his choice of instrument.

"I don't know why I was so attracted to the mandolin. It was very challenging because, at that time, no one was teaching classical Carnatic music on the mandolin, so finding someone to help me was hard.

"Many great musicians asked me to change to another instrument, but I was confident I could make the mandolin work for me."

After his father had taught him the fundamentals of playing the mandolin, he set out to learn on his own and mastered the art. He has been nicknamed "Mandolin Srinivas".

"If you don't say 'Mandolin Srinivas', no one will know who you are talking about."

At 32, Rajesh has carved a place for himself in the classical music scene, but he said playing with his brother had been his dream.

"I wanted to be a pilot, but my destiny changed when I began playing. There were four musicians I always wanted to play with, and one of them was my brother, because we weren't allowed to play together. I am blessed to have worked so often with him," said Rajesh.

The brothers have collaborated with a several Indian and Western musicians, including English jazz-fusion guitarist and composer John McLaughlin and renowned flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia.

They say that music is a learning process. "Nobody becomes great just like that. We are always learning, and we want to work with all the maestros," said Srinivas.