REMEMBER SHAKTI at Roy Thomson Hall (60 Simcoe), Sunday (October 5), $39.50-$66.50. 416-872-4255. Rating: NNNNN
from a distance, high-profile su pergroups wouldn't seem to be Upallapu Shrinivas's thing. The soft-spoken mandolin virtuoso is reduced to an embarrassed mumble when complimented on his own playing. Ask him about plugging in next to guitarist John McLaughlin and tabla titan Zakir Hussain as part of legendary fusion ensemble Remember Shakti, though, and Shrinivas nearly erupts. It's hardly faint praise.
As a child prodigy, Shrinivas famously introduced the electric mandolin to the vast canon that is Indian classical music. He fought off criticism from Carnatic scholars by knocking them out with his explosive playing. He's been making fusion music since he picked up his father's instrument at age six, so when he says playing in Remember Shakti is a dream come true, you've got to take him at his word.
"I've been listening to Shakti since I was 11 or 12 years old," Shrinivas explains from Minneapolis. "That first record had a big impact around the world, especially in India. When I was starting my solo career, one of the musicians I played with had a copy, and I took it from him.
"It was beyond my imagination. I couldn't understand how they could play like this. If you had told me that I would be playing with them many years later, I would have laughed.
"Even now, it's very odd. John and Zakir both inspire me, and ultimately, that's what's most important. I need to be inspired, or it's just another job. Every day, John plays differently and I try to keep up. I'm just trying not to disturb his concentration."
Just as Shakti, and now Remember Shakti, have pushed Indian classical music into new directions by fusing it with improv jazz, so has Shrinivas.
Twenty years ago, the mandolin was an unheard instrument in the music, but it's now developing a serious profile. Shrinivas, in turn, has had to double up as entertainer and educator, spending much of his time teaching the instrument to schools of curious younger players.
"I started the Shrinivas Institute of World Music, which was created to give the mandolin a voice," he says. "I have 33 different students, and they've now started giving their own concerts.
"The progress has been amazing. In my early years, most serious musicians discouraged me because they had no idea how the mandolin sounded or how it would fit in. Other instruments have a history of thousands of years behind them, and then I suddenly appeared and tried to introduce something new. It caused offence.
"Now, the instrument is a familiar one. It has taken time, many years, but it is beginning."
Part of that process involves plugging himself into different styles of music. In addition to the jazz/raga of Remember Shakti, Shrinivas has recorded with Michael Nyman and Michael Brook.
He has yet to bring his mandolin to what might seem like a natural fit - bluegrass.
"It is an interesting idea," Shrinivas laughs. "To be honest, though, I am not very familiar with bluegrass. All I know is that they play the mandolin very fast, perhaps even faster than me."