Uma Peters would rather let her brother Giri do all the talking. “It’s always been a little hard for me, talking,” the 12-year-old says. But hand her a gourd banjo or a clawhammer, and the preteen transforms into a musician way mature for her years. Accompanying her is 14-year-old Giri, the other half of the brother-sister duo from Nashville, Tennessee, who is making strides in the bluegrass music scene. Giri plays the fiddle, mandolin and the guitar, and the two have been captivating audiences with their refreshing, soulful blend of old-time, folk, and roots music.
This May, the siblings released “Origins,” their debut album of folk and blues songs. Since they became a duo in 2015, they have been favorites at festivals around the country and have performed at prestigious venues including the Kennedy Center. They have also jammed with musician Rhiannon Giddens and guitar player Jerry Douglas.
What makes the siblings’ story stand out is their choice of music, as bluegrass and traditional folk music is known to pass from one generation to the next. Grateful Web says that while it is not unusual to find young talents in this genre, it is not common to come across players like Giri and Uma, who stand out even more because, “in genres in which artists of color are still anomalies, they might be the first bluegrass duo of Indian-American heritage.”
Mom Sarika Peters, a Houston native and a pediatric psychologist at Vanderbilt University, says Nashville, which they have called home for the past 10 years, has played a significant role in the genre of music her kids have been pursuing. Nashville has been described as a city where country, bluegrass, rock, pop, Americana, gospel, classical, jazz and blues, “all blend and overlap in perfect harmony.”
The kids do not come from any musical background, although Peters had an early exposure to music. She played the piano and the flute growing up and she “loved to sing” when she was a young child. Her father she says has “an amazing sense of rhythm,” and “always wanted to play the tabla, but the opportunity for him to learn never really presented itself.” It is from this linage that her kids’ talent comes from, she says. While Giri has an ear for music, Uma, Peters says, started to become musical from being around her brother. “Uma has an amazing sense of rhythm and timing.”
Giri’s Homage to History
Their debut album, Giri says, is a set of traditional folk and blues songs with the aim to spotlight black musical traditions “that shaped and spread the tunes.” It contains eight songs “with rich histories,” and one original composition from Giri. “I wanted to try to change how people listen to and think about them,” Giri writes in an essay that accompanies the album. “By exploring the origins of each song, we can use the music as a guide to explore America’s history of slavery, the intermixing of cultures, and even racism,” he says. The album contains some popular tunes exploring those themes including “Shortnin’ Bread,” “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” “Babe It Ain’t No Lie,” “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” and “John Henry.”
Giri says “Old Joe Clark,” the song he composed for the album, was written thinking about the melody of the original song by The Kingston Trio and made it slower. “I did it in minor key, and changed the B part,” he says. “The main figure — Old Joe — represents my way of acknowledging the musical backgrounds of so many enslaved African men, women, and children who influenced the origins and the entire history of American music.”
The work behind the album also served as Giri’s eighth grade project at Nashville’s Linden Waldorf School. “I want to keep the history alive, and I never want people to forget where it came from,” he says. “Music should always unite people, not separate them.” He said his main intention behind the album was to bring history back to the songs and not just play them to play them. “So if you’re going to play a song, know it’s history and the impact it had.” He also hopes the album will inspire listeners to do their own research.
How it all Began
Giri was 3 when Peters took him to the Houston Symphony Family Concert. There was a petting zoo and that was the first time Giri saw a violin. “He literally begged for a toy violin and as soon as we came home, he held it up and acted like he knew just how to play,” Peters recalls.
Over the years, Giri’s interest in music grew. Two years later, Giri saw Chris Farrell, a viola player at the Nashville Symphony, who came to play for their Montessori class. He came home, “begging” for a viola. That’s when Peters began classical violin lessons for him. Uma, who would sit in on her brother’s lessons began taking classes at age 4.
But the inspiration for bluegrass came a few years later after watching the Goat Radio Sessions on PBS, where they watched a collaboration between mandolin player Chris Thile, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, fiddler and banjo player Stuart Duncan and bassist Edgar Meyer. “It was an interesting combination of styles,” Peters says. That’s where Giri saw the mandolin for the first time and asked for one. “I had no idea what a mandolin was,” Peter recalls, and remembers googling it. That’s how in August 2013 Giri began mandolin lessons. A few months later, in October, he switched to fiddle.
Uma, Peter says, first got attracted to the fiddle when she began sitting in on Giri’s lessons, and in January 2014, at age 6, she began playing the fiddle, but in August switched to the banjo after she saw a documentary that featured the Carolina Chocolate Drops playing “Cornbread and Butterbeans.” A 2017 blog on the John Hartford Memorial Festival website, in an interview with Peters, quotes her saying that her daughter’s “little parlor-sized banjo” worked better for her than the fiddle. “Banjo came easily for her (easier than fiddle) and she has an innate sense of that old-time groove,” she said.
Grateful Web reports that they became a duo in 2015, “when they wanted to compete in a band category at the Smithville Fiddlers Jamboree in Smithville, Tennessee. “Their teacher suggested they enter as a pair,” the report says. Three years later, they won two band categories. That first year, Giri won awards in every youth competition music category except banjo, which Uma won. They did it again in 2016, and also earned individual wins in 2018, they report said.
They’ve also won awards at the Old Fiddlers’ Convention in Galax, Tennessee, the John Hartford Memorial Festival in Bean Blossom, Indiana, and the Grand Master Fiddler Championship at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame. They’ve also performed at World of Bluegrass week in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Folk Alliance International’s International Folk Music Awards in Kansas City, Missouri.
But it wasn’t until they performed at a showcase highlighting the diversity of bluegrass music in September 2016 that they started getting noticed. Giri and Uma performed at a Ramble showcase called “Shout and Shine: A Celebration of Diversity in Bluegrass.” According to the Tennessean, the event, hosted by the Nashville-based International Bluegrass Music Association, encourages diversity among attendees and performers. “Part of our value structure is about being inclusive, and this year (our members) wanted to make sure that was demonstrated,” IBMA executive director Paul Schiminger told the paper in a Dec.2, 2016 interview about the festival.
Their performance also caught the attention of Giddens who later visited the Peter’s home to teach and play songs. After inviting them to join her at last summer’s ROMP Festival in Owensboro, Kentucky, Peters says Giddens loaned Uma a gourd banjo. The Tennessee Arts Commission’s folklife director saw a video of her playing it and asked the pair to apply for its traditional arts apprenticeship program. And that’s how Uma began an eight-month apprenticeship with Giddens, where she served as a master artist for Uma.
She also recorded Uma’s tune, “How to Help the World,” for FAI’s 2018 festival compilation CD.
In 2016, Giri released his first bluegrass album, “Just Whittlin’ Around.” He is joined by Uma, on clawhammer banjo and vocals on three cuts, along with Brandon Bostic on guitar and resonator guitar, Austin Ward on bass, and Joey Gibson on Scruggs-style banjo. The record includes two original songs that Giri wrote — “Zoey’s Reel” and “Spunky Creek.” According to the Tennessean, “Zoey’s Reel,” is about the family dog “who likes to lie on the couch and listen to the kids practice.”
Finding a Voice
The music, Peters says, has not just given her kids fame, but has given them “a fearless and free personality,” that will shape them for the years to come. It has really helped bring her daughter Uma out of her shell. “When Rhiannon was here, it was so powerful for Uma to see that girls, and girls of color, can do this,” Peters had told the Tennessean in a 2016 interview.
Giri says that over the years, the two have learned to deal with attention and the online trolls and some of the negativity as well. “First it was kind of surreal,” he says of the publicity and the attention.
Peters adds that the kids have also realized that they can use music to spread their message about issues facing the society and the country.
Their heritage or their age has mostly not come in the way of their success or their popularity, other than an occasion nasty comment on social media. “Their reception in bluegrass and old-time music has been very positive, but Giri and Uma do get the occasional nasty comment, sometimes because of their young age and sometimes because of their heritage,” Peters told the Tennessean in an earlier interview. But more often than not, their heritage has made them stand out initially in a genre of music that’s predominantly Christian and white. “But eventually it’s their talent that speaks,” she notes.
The siblings also use music to stay connected to their culture. Mom plays the dhol sometimes and the three groove to desi beats. “My family is Punjabi and so they’ve listened to those beats and style, and I know they have thought about ways that they can integrate those elements into their playing,” Peters says.
Peters also wrote a song — “Nana’s song” — where, Giri says they came up with “Indian rifts.” Peters says the melodies on Uma’s banjo sound Indian as well. The two say they have just beginning to learn the rhythms and sounds of Indian music, which can be “sophisticated to adapting.”
Keeping it Normal
Peters says that the kids aren’t homeschooled and lead a “daily, normal life” during the school year, which helps them a great deal. The kids also don’t tour much after school starts, but even if they do, they take their homework and school assignments with them.
And despite performing together all the time they are different. “Giri and I see music differently,” Uma says. She prefers to write melodies first than words, while Giri comes up with temporary melody to hear the phrasing and puts the words first.
Even the way they see the road ahead is different. Giri is looking toward a future where he can emulate the lives of his musical heroes. “I would like to go on tour with a band,” he says.
But Uma isn’t sure tour bus life is for her, but she is positive about one thing: “I’m always going to do music.”
The two agree that they are like any other sibling pair, and say they argue and fight as well. But the topics of contention could be tunes, melodies and notes. That’s normal enough for music prodigies, isn’t it?