Kiran Gandhi and I spoke over the phone on a pleasant New York City afternoon. Now M.I.A’s former drummer, she’s founded an exciting group, Madame Gandhi, that has caught my undivided attention. She was in Los Angeles during the conversation and I was near New York’s Lincoln Center. We spoke about how she came to be a drummer, and, most importantly about her greatest love, music.
In 1848, the first woman’s rights convention was held in the United States, at Seneca Falls. It marked the official beginning of what became a long history of very public feminism in American society. That year, the nation supposedly established by white founding fathers and aided by certain elite founding mothers like Martha Washington (perhaps it’s time to tell more war stories of women in the American Revolution) continued to hold fast to a basic principle. Namely, that men were citizens and only they, if fortunate enough to hold land, could guarantee a prosperous vivere civile, as Machiavelli had it, or civil life. It was time to rip down patriarchy, however ‘traditional.’
In 2016 feminism continues in the United States, and beyond. It finds some of its most exciting expression in music, like in the music of M.I.A.’s former drummer, Kiran Gandhi, who considers her music first and foremost feminist. Kiran became a percussionist at summer camp in 2001. When she found time to herself Kiran would hide, hoping that no one would find her. On one of these retreats, she found a drum set and the willingness within herself to play. She pursued her love of drumming into college at Georgetown University. In the nation’s capital, Washington, DC, she explored the small but robust electronic music scene, a period that produced acts like Thievery Corporation and their 18th Street Lounge. In fact, she ended up playing for Thievery Corporation and then, later, for political musician M.I.A.
When it comes to its being political, M.I.A’s music is in a league of its own. What’s most thrilling about M.I.A’s protest music has always been her songs’ rhythms and how they publicize her political messaging while moving the body. Her albums, Kala, Maya, Matangi, Arular, are collections of incredible liberating rhythm after incredible rhythm. Many of these rhythms, such as “Bird Flu,” or the hit song “Boyz,” prominently feature loud drumming, as loud as even a brass band is. Her songs are feminist songs that treat personal freedom; the song “Bad Girls” is a great example of this. They are new culture: songs that liberate and empower through rhythm much than through lyrics, as opposed to most “protest” songs such as Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the wind” or Kanye West and Jay Z’s “Murder to excellence”, a hip hop protest song that treats the very high crime rate in the Southside of Chicago.
Like M.I.A., Madame Ghandi idea of a feminist song prioritizes rhythm. MG however has its own touch. Listening to Madame Gandhi, it’s clear that there’s something light though controlled about Kiran’s music that releases a listener, or at least this one, from burden. It comes off as carefree but it is complex. Her drumming is precise and fierce. My favorite song of Madame Gandhi’s in particular is the electro-narrative “Wazey” – it grips.
Paul Goodman’s book Growing Up Absurd offers one template to understand the sentimental education of a political musician, arguing that capitalism renders existence meaningless for those who live within its embrace. Presumably, then, political musicians are on a quest for meaning, whether small or large. The quest for meaning has founded many infamous bohemian enclaves and they have fueled much of what we would consider to be American political music. A female feminist musician adds rightfully adds paternalism to the capitalism. Her music seeks to produce meaning for herself and for its listeners and does so gloriously.