She's wooed the airwaves for decades and captured the imagination of generations with her unique voice and range, cutting language barriers. The Guide caught up with Usha Uthup, unplugged and in high spirits, days before she performs in Mumbai
Some things never go out of style. Like Usha Uthup's trademark avatar whenever she gets behind the mike -- Kanjeevaram sari, full moon bindi, jasmine gajra and an infectious stage appeal that continues to regale the most stoic 60-year-old mami from Matunga as much as it does to the 30-something banker sipping on his margherita. No wonder then, a chat with the vibrant performer who is back in the city to perform for the Time and Talent Club, is always laced with laughter, wit and good, old-fashioned advice. Excerpts from the interview:
What goes through your mind every time you return to Mumbai?
By god's grace, I keep getting plenty of opportunities to perform here. In fact, I've been doing this show for the Time and Talent Club for 40 years now. It's an amazing audience. I intend to keep the nostalgia quotient intact. Some of the tracks I intend to perform include Just The Way You Are, Fever, Jezebel, Jambalaya, Can't Help Falling in Love and Hava Nageela. Yes, there are bound to be requests for Darling, Dum Maaro Dum and Senorita. At the end of the day, I intend to go with flow.
Who were your early influences when you took up singing?
I was a radio freak and my biggest influence was Radio Ceylon -- we would tune into it all the time. My sisters Uma and Indira were terrific inspiration as well in my growing years. Among the legends, there's Harry Belafonte, Shirley Bassey, Ella Fitzgerald, The Beatles, Al Jarreau, Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra. Jazz music has influenced my life and my music tremendously. We had no access to electronic media so I developed my own style -- my convent school upbringing and my dialogue delivery ensured I developed a very Western characteristic to my music; people know it isn't copied; it was very unique in its time.
Recently, I was in Tamil Nadu and was amazed to hear that my music composed in the 1970s was still being played: I sang Tamil hits like Idhayakkani (English track, Hello Lover), which featured MG Ramachandran while I appeared as myself in the Kamal Haasan-starrer Melnaattu Marumagal. In those days, we had to get it right in one take -- we had to sing along with the musicians. Today, kids think they've arrived when they ape similar grooves and beats.
What are some of the most significant changes that you've noticed here, musically?
It's the access to technology and to talent. Back then; there was a monopoly of three to four singers. This flood of reality shows is a concern -- kids and parents should not fall for the carrot. Performing isn't just about playback singing. Stage and live performances are very important.
Looking back, share with us some of your most memorable stage performances?
There are so many. But I'll always treasure the time I performed with Miriam Makeba (Mama Africa) when the new South Africa was born. I also got to meet Nelson Mandela. Another memorable act was when I sang alongside Mahalia Jackson, the legendary African-American Gospel singer in 1969-70.
On: October 20, 7 pm
At: Tata Theatre, NCPA, Nariman Point.