U Srinivas, 28 February 1969 – 19 September 2014
With great sadness we have learned that the outstanding musician Uppalapu Shrinivas – known worldwide as U Srinivas, or Mandolin Srinivas, because of the instrument he popularised – has passed away aged 45, in Chennai India, of complications following a liver operation. The death of a great talent is always a blow, but even more so when it is at a relatively early age. It is the greatest of ironies to spend the formative years of a career described as a child prodigy, and then to pass away having finally been allowed the credit of mature maestro. To succeed in the super-critical and highly developed world of Indian classical music is hard enough, but to do so on an instrument completely out of the prevailing tradition is a challenge. U Srinivas joined a trend of 20th Century Indian musicians (for example Kadri Gopalnath, Brij Bushan Kabra, Shivkumar Sharma) to bring in other valid voices to the orthodoxy of Indian classical music.
His chosen instrument was the mandolin, having discovered his father’s instrument at the age of six. Initially his father started to teach him, but – talent recognised – he was tutored, intensively, by a series of gurus. Srinivas adopted the electric mandolin, which allowed him to sustain the instrument’s individual notes and produce the long, articulated phrases, delicate ornamentations and rapid flow his ragas required. His music came from the Karnatic style of southern Indian classical music (the other main style being the Hindustani style of the north). It is demanding to play, and – depending on the mood of the raga chosen – exhilarating, calming or uplifting to hear.
From his first public performance in 1978, his prodigious talent and devotion brought him success, acclaim, respect and awards. Deeply attached to his Karnatic classical world, he still found no difficulty in approaching other musical styles. Jazz was a natural destination, and it came as no surprise (but with pleasure) to see him playing with John McLaughlin’s Shakti. The rigour of his Karnatic education made the filigree work and lightning exchanges of mindblowing fusion jazz a playful and sublime joy, not an athletic task for strained virtuoso chops.
For Ace Records’ GlobeStyle imprint, I had the pleasure of producing the “Modern Mandolin Maestro” album with him in 1990 when he was 21, surrounded by older, revered accompanists (each outstanding, too). We recorded inLondon (Srinivas was on tour with Asian Music Circuit) – I flew in from Paris for the day to do it (feeling rather grand, just like a real international producer). A beautiful studio room, excellent engineer, world-class musicians – what more do you need? Real time is the answer – and we recorded the album live, ensemble, in real time. Start, play, stop, brilliant. I went back to Paris the same evening.
Srinivas was lovely, shy, self-effacing and totally focussed on the music ahead. He drew great pleasure in his sensitivity to time. When I asked him for a short extra for the end of the album, he asked me “How long exactly?” “Four minutes, five seconds,” I replied. He did the take, perfect and complete. “There,” he said. “Four minutes, five seconds.” It was.