Interview with (Young) Old-Time Musicians Giri and Uma

Giri and Uma’s music is so polished and delightful. How old were your kids when they started playing music? Sarika (mom): Giri has been playing this style of music for about four and a half years. Uma has been playing for three and a half years.

They have been playing as a duo for almost two years. They were at a fiddle contest and wanted to enter the old-time string band contest, but couldn’t find others who would play with them. Their teacher (Deanie Richardson) encouraged them to just enter as a duo, and that got them started with playing together!

Giri was initially more into a bluegrass style of music, but heard Uma having some banjo lessons and decided it would be fun to play with her, so he adapted to her style.

Old-time is quite a unique genre, especially for a 12- and 10-year old? What was their first exposure to it and was it something they naturally gravitated towards? Sarika: Giri was interested in music at a really young age. We lived in Houston and I took him to a Symphony Family Concert when he was three. They had an instrument petting zoo there. He literally begged for a toy violin on the way out (and I got it for him).

We moved to Nashville when Giri was four and Uma was two. When Giri was five years old, there was a demonstration by Chris Farrell (an IU alum), a viola player in the Nashville Symphony. He came home saying that he absolutely had to have a viola and really wanted to play music. I was fairly new to Nashville at that time and asked friends at work for some help with finding teachers, and they guided me to some local Suzuki teachers.

Giri started Suzuki violin at age five. When he was eight years old, we were watching the Goat Rodeo Sessions (Chris Thile, Yo Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, and Aoife O’Donovan), and he pointed to Chris’ mandolin and said “I want one of those.’

I had to research what it was, but about a month or two later, he started mandolin lessons and then switched to fiddle. Uma also started with Suzuki violin. She was sitting in on her brother’s fiddle lessons and one day said: ‘I want to fiddle, too.’ She was six years old at the time.

We watched a show with the Carolina Chocolate Drops (and Rhiannon Giddens), and was so taken by Rhiannon’s banjo playing and singing and soon thereafter wanted to start clawhammer banjo lessons. She was seven years old when she started on a little parlor-sized banjo.

Enlighten us – what exactly defines old-time music? Giri: It’s dance music, it has a strong drive and groove, and it invites the audience into that. It’s uplifting and makes you want to tap your foot.

When it comes to writing lyrics, is that something that both of the kids work on? What’s your songwriting process? Sarika: Uma writes lyrics first and then put a melody to it. Giri writes the melodies first and then put words to it later.

Have you ever tried playing any Indian instruments? If so, what’d you think of the sound? Sarika: Uma hasn’t tried any Indian instruments, but loves the sound. She believes she can make her banjo sound Indian. We think the dobro sounds a lot like a Sitar.

For Giri, he has tried to play a dhol. He likes the strong beat of the dhol and has always loved the sound of the sitar. He has tried to write a few mandolin melodies to mimic that sound.

Are there any musicians that inspire you or that you look up to? Sarika: Uma admires Rhiannon Giddens. She is really nice and their think our playing styles are similar. She’s a great musician and performer. She also uses her music to make the world a better place.

Giri appreciates Sarah Jarosz, who is an amazing multi-instrumentalist and vocalist. He’s inspired by her songwriting. She’s also very humble and takes time with kids. She’s been so encouraging of both of them.

Both kids really like Jerry Douglas. Jerry crosses so many genres and has collaborated with musicians from around the world and so many different countries (including India!). He’s funny, he has great advice for kids, and he’s very generous with his time.

Tell us a little bit about what’s it like to tour. Is fun, scary, exciting?  Sarika: For Uma, it’s probably a little bit of all of those. Giri loves playing shows because it gives him experience and makes me a better musician. He loves interacting with the audience and meeting new people.

Any advice for people who want to learn a musical instrument? Uma: Don’t get mad at yourself if you don’t get it the first. Giri: Don’t worry about where other people are. Only focus on your own abilities.

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