Ecstasy and Wisdom: Elder Ones’ Amirtha Kidambi Interviewed

Ahead of the Elder Ones show at Jazz Jantar, Gdansk, Poland on Friday November 3, Stewart Smith talks to Amirtha Kidambi

Elder Ones portrait by Chris Weiss

A heady mix of Hindu devotional song, avant jazz and contemporary classical, Elder Ones’ Holy Science was one of the most startling debuts of 2015. Led by vocalist and composer Amirtha Kidambi, whose improvised vocal flights channel Carnatic tradition through the ecstatic jazz of Linda Sharrock and Jeanne Lee, the New York quartet also boasts the talents of saxophonist Matt Nelson, drummer Max Jaffe and bassist Nick Dunston (who replaces Brandon Lopez).

Kidambi grew up in St Jose, California, absorbing punk, metal, hip hop and r & b, all the while singing Hindu devotional music and studying Indian classical dance. A classically trained vocalist in the western tradition, Kidambi discovered jazz and the classical avant garde in her teens, sparking a passion that that would eventually lead her to New York’s downtown music scene. She moved to Brooklyn in 2009, becoming involved with DIY spaces such as Silent Barn and Issue Project Room, where she encountered the likes of Matana Roberts, trumpet innovator Peter Evans, and saxophonist/composer Darius Jones.

As a member of the female vocal quartet the Elizabeth-Caroline Unit, she worked with Jones on his remarkable suite The Oversoul Manual. She was also in Seaven Teares, an early music/avant-rock group featuring Charlie Looker of Extra Life and Zs. Other collaborators include Tyshawn Sorey and Ben Vida. Her studies led her to work with the late composer Robert Ashley and Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians co-founder Muhal Richard Abrams.

In addition to touring and developing new material with Elder Ones, Kidambi is currently engaged with solo improvisation and ad hoc group performances. A double album from Code Girl, a song-based group led by guitarist/composer Mary Halvorson and also featuring trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, is due in the new year. "They’re really weird songs," says Kidambi, "from the brain of Mary!" She’s also involved in a tentative new project with Jones and Looker. All this on top of the PhD she’s just started at Columbia University. TQ spoke to her ahead of Elder One’s short European tour, where they’ll be unveiling new, electronically enhanced material.

Your family background is southern Indian. To what extent did you grow up in the Carnatic tradition?

Amirtha Kidambi: It’s funny how many people assume I was trained in Carnatic music. I was not. That’s a lifelong training and I want to emphasise that. In terms of Indian fine arts I was trained as a Barathanatyam dancer and so there are certain aspects of that training that are really connected to the music, because all of the footwork is related to Carnatic rhythms. There’s even similar syllables that the teacher uses when she’s beating the beats. The drummer uses the same system.

I did sing every Sunday, devotional music called bhajans. So the Alice Coltrane record that just came out, those are bhajans. I’d sing literally those same songs, in the same tradition. That was really influential, because that was the earliest that I was singing, with harmonium accompaniment, tambourine, banjira sometimes a guitar, this would be every Sunday, so those songs, they’re in raga form but they’re call and response, so you learn just by singing. There’s so many, there are hundreds of them. Whoever’s leading it often is improvising and it’s devotional.

I’ve been singing that music since the age of three or four as well as Vedic chanting and all that stuff, so that was always there. And of course I was listening to tons of Carnatic music and going to concerts because I’m South Indian and my mom is obsessed. Even my name is a raga.

What else were you into growing up?

AK: I was in choir since I was really young, and then in high school a small jazz combo and also singing classical choral music. It was the 90s, so a lot of metal and punk, and at the same time a lot of r & b, hip hop: east coast and west coast were just a constant fixture for me. I was listening to a lot of metal and punk and that sort of opened an interesting segue into jazz for me. I would do some jazz in school so I wanted to connect to the tradition, but I got really fixated on John Coltrane. The library had Interstellar Space and Ascension and even though I didn’t totally understand it when I was in high school, maybe ‘cos I was very into kind of aggressive, visceral, intense, loud music, I was immediately attracted to it. But A Love Supreme was the first CD I was listening to in my car of Coltrane, just loved it. [Later on] the classical avant-garde had a big impact on me, early music had a big impact on me, then I started discovering people like Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton. Youtube and the library, soaking up as much as possible. When I look back on what I was into it’s hard to say there was some common thread other than maybe the artists that I was most interested in would do something really individual and unique.

What motivated your move to New York in 2009?

AK: I went to college in Los Angeles and I lived there for a few years after. In terms of DIY there was the Smell, but there wasn’t a lot of stuff happening, it was really hard to find out about things. It’s a strange city. I just knew I had to come to New York because so much of the music that I was getting into was from New York. Bands like Extra Life and [Darius Jones’] Little Women, they were doing really interesting, original stuff, referencing people like Braxton. It seemed to cross over with free jazz, avant-garde classical, all these things I was interested in. I didn’t exactly know how to fit into it but when I got here I was doing a Masters at Brooklyn College and we read some of George Lewis’s book on the AACM [A Power Stronger Than Itself ] and that was a major turning point for me. Even though I was studying classical music I was like, " I don’t want to perform that, that’s not what I’m interested in." So when I got here I had a foot in the DIY. I joined my first band Seven Teares and played shows with them in places like Zebulon, Issue Project Room and Roulette. And then I started working with Robert Ashley when I was in grad school and that was an impacting experience. And right when I finished I got to work with Muhal Richard Abrams so there was the DIY, there were elder composers based in New York who I got to do things with, then collaborations that just started to crop up with people here. The community is so connected and half of the way you start working with people is you’re at a show and you’re like "we should play". So I always knew it had to be here, this was where all the best stuff was coming from.

Could you tell us a little more about working with Robert Ashley and Muhal Richard Abrams? Were there any important lessons they taught you?

AK: Originality of vision. There were all these amazing golden nuggets of information [Ashley] would give us about creative process. There’s nothing in my music that resembles Robert Ashley aesthetically, but then there’s nobody anywhere ever whose aesthetic resembles his aesthetic because he’s so original. That’s part of the lesson I took from him in terms of creativity. If there’s something you want to do but you don’t see how it fits in to some other musical genre, it doesn’t have a specific path laid out, you just have to make one. "How did someone think of this?" And Muhal as well, that individualism. It’s taken me a long time to figure out what I wanted to do in terms of my own creative voice and creative statement, so those experiences were really formative in just starting a process of digging inside and figuring out what I wanted to do creatively.

It’s interesting that you mention George Lewis and the AACM. Did they have an influence in terms of blurring boundaries between improvisation, new music etc?

AK: Yeah, in terms of giving permission. Especially because once you have this classical training these hierarchies really get set up in your head about what a performer is, what a composer is etc. Also questioning certain Eurocentric ideas. To this day that’s a model to me of how to be a musician because they gave themselves permission to do [anything]. There were things I didn’t think I was allowed to do, or could do, I would go, "Oh well, I can’t lead a quartet because I didn’t really study jazz", and yeah, it’s just about individuality and creativity, honouring tradition, thinking about history, understanding your place in it. They were huge. It’s the best.

You were also involved with DIY and underground spaces like Silent Barn and Issue Project Room.

AK: Yeah, it’s been a while since I worked with [Silent Barn]. I was working with their outreach programme so I helped organise this big block party in the neighbourhood, connect community organisations. And I did the first iterations of a series called Tongues that was Indian traditional music and experimental, mostly improvised music back to back, that was cool. I worked for Issue Project Room for almost five years, so that was a place I was a fixture for a long time up until recently. It’s been a while, because of NY geography and shifting centres. I moved to Queens so it’s hard to get to Silent Barn. Also the venues change and there are so many new ones.

Music and activism seemed to go hand in hand in these spaces?

AK: Oh yeah, the other thing we did at Silent Farm, which is sort of an extension of something Matana Roberts had done, Musicians Against Police Brutality. She had done a show at Union Pool after Mike Brown was shot and then she didn’t have time to do another one for a while and then Eric Garner happened and so on. Myself and [trumpeter] Peter Evans organised a big event at the Silent Barn in November 2014 and we were able to give money direct to the family. We had a panel of community organisers and experts and interviews and all this kind of stuff. That was a project that I really wanted to continue but again it’s a time issue. But Silent Barn was a great place for that kind of work and they continue to do that.

Your activism seems to have fed into the music, with the Elder Ones track ‘Dvapar Yuga’ dedicated to Eric Garner.

AK: First of all, even though I participate in activism I definitely wouldn’t call myself an activist, because at this time, 2017 in America, activists are doing work on the ground and that’s a whole life calling. But I try to engage as much as possible and with that particular series of events between 2014 and now, my consciousness was raised by people like Matana Roberts and Darius Jones who are more directly connected to these issues. I’m still trying to find a way to have my music address the kind of things I’m thinking about and feeling on a day to day basis. But they’re not as disconnected, and I feel that they can’t be right now, with what’s going on.

So when we perform the Eric Garner piece it can always be contemporary because it’s an issue that is so constant and prevalent in the US. I found every time we performed it there had been some other incident, another killing, and we would call that into the room. Sometimes people would tell me it was really cathartic, or for myself there was so much anger and feeling of futility it felt empowering to perform that piece. We pretty much say his name every time we play that piece so we can’t forget that it happened and that it’s still happening. And now what I’ve been writing, it’s pretty much Trump era in that I started a lot of the writing during the election and after. I started to feel, okay there are some things I literally want to articulate and need to get out and address through music, so that’s a big change from the last record.

So as well as improvising around phonemes you’re using texts now?

AK: Yeah. I still use a lot of phonemes in the improvising. That was so freeing creatively. What I’ve been writing [recently] is very minimal. It’s maybe one or two sentences per piece, but it’s just enough to leave a mental impression and create a vibe for the piece.

Your use of phonemes raises interesting questions about how improvisation in the Carnatic tradition relates to improvisation in a jazz/experimental context.

AK: I’ve had five years on and off [studying Carnatic music]. This summer I was in India for two months just studying so there’s been even more feedback into my improvising. In terms of the syllabic thing, definitely it struck me like okay, they’re singing incredibly fast, incredibly extemporaneously, and there’s a clear articulation happening. So I was thinking about that and also the Darius Jones project I had been singing in for several years, and it would just kind of come out naturally. There are certain kinds of phonemes you can immediately associate with a tradition, so I didn’t want to use just the Carnatic syllables, ‘cos for one thing they’re tied to the actual position of the note in the raga and I didn’t want that especially when I’m dealing with really chromatic things that are gonna be atonal, or where the tonal centre might shift. So I didn’t want to just copy that. And in jazz improvisation there are certain syllables that I didn’t want to deal with at all, like "dabba" or "dooby" – they were off limits! So yeah, something that felt comfortable and natural that I didn’t really have to think about, allowed me to be totally free. I wanna be a horn! I want to have the freedom to be liberated from text when I’m into a solo or improvising. But I’m enjoying bringing text back in minimally because that’s a huge facet of being a singer.

So how did Elder Ones come together?

AK: I had been wanting to start a band of my own for a very long time and I didn’t know exactly what kind of ensemble it was going to be. I started doing the solo material with harmonium and – ah! – I was starting to hear other sounds that I wanted to have in a potential band. And I got this commission from Roulette at that same time so it was like now I have money to pay people to make an actual band. That’s one of the biggest practical considerations in New York. I didn’t want to start something where I was just asking people to do me favours. So it was a great confluence of events and it just happened to be at the time I was starting to get a clearer vision of what kind of band I wanted. Each person I chose because they have a very individual style of improvising. I love soprano saxophone, maybe because I’m a huge ‘Trane fan, and a certain era of music that’s associated with the soprano, like Pharoah Sanders. One of my favourite instruments is a South Indian instrument called the nadaswaram, it’s a double reed, almost like shenai, but bigger. Ah, it sears your brain! The soprano can have that quality and I love that. I feel that sound really compliments the harmonium, [whereas] the tenor might totally obliterate it.

Matt Nelson, this is the only band in which he’s playing soprano. Max Jaffe plays drums and I had just wanted to be in a band with him since I met him. He was one of the first people I met in New York and he’s just so versatile, it’s amazing, a secret weapon. He can play really free, but he’s been in a bunch of weird rock bands, he can groove, he can do all that stuff. And originally I had Brandon Lopez who is an amazing bass player. And recently instead of Brandon we have Nick Dunstone, who Vijay Iyer turned me onto and is an amazing player. Totally different to Brandon, but I try to write the music in a way that is flexible enough so each band member can express their musical identities within my concept. This is the first test of that and so far it’s going really well.

You’ve started adding synth and electronics to the mix.

AK: Yeah. I have tunes where I go from the harmonium to the synth. I’m still exploring that, but I like to add a new timbre. And also now Max has developed a really interesting sensory percussion set up that he has been doing solo work with for a while, as well as in a quartet with Peter Evans called Being And Becoming. I got to hear him work that out in a band setting and I was like, okay, that is a really cool sound and whole new element. It’s very natural sounding. It’s not like he hits the drum and it’s like whee pow pshew! So there are more electronic timbres in the music. It’s still in an exploratory phase but I like it a lot.

Amirtha Kidambi’s Elder Ones play Berlin Jazz Festival on Wednesday November 1 and Jazz Jantar, Gdansk, Poland on Friday November 3

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