Building Back Better: New Monuments By Amirtha Kidambi’s Elder Ones

Kidambi’s third album with the NYC-based collective was forged in the crucible of the 2020 Black Lives Matters protests, making for the group's most overtly political record yet

Since dropping the first album with her ensemble Elder Ones in 2016, singer, composer, and bandleader Amirtha Kidambi has maintained a rigorous creative fluidity, establishing a penchant for restless change and development. The group’s debut album Holy Science (Northern Spy) was nominally rooted in jazz tradition, with lean arrangements shaped by a nimble group driven by the rhythm section of bassist Brandon Lopez and drummer Max Jaffe, while the frontline was shared by the singer and soprano saxophonist Matt Nelson. Over four extended pieces the group stretched and pulled apart relatively direct pieces, sprinkling substantial improvisations within the flow of the pieces. But from the beginning it was clear that Kidambi was searching for something different, and we should be grateful that her quest has carried on, undiminished. With the group’s third album New Monuments the leader has demonstrated an unshakeable faith in her own instincts, not only letting the actual music evolve and grow, but increasingly injecting the work with her personal experiences and the injustices of a world skewed by the pursuit of profits and power.

New Monuments was created in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and it stands as the most overtly political record in her oeuvre. The inclusion of explicit political perspectives isn’t new in her music. The opening piece on the group’s second album from 2019, From Untruth, features Kidambi chanting, “Eat the rich, or die starving.” In the new album’s liner note essay the singer explains how her activism and involvement in protests – during which she began to learn how to play alto saxophone – became inextricably linked to her own music-making, noting how the oppressive violence of police was noticeably ameliorated by the presence of musical instruments: “We noticed that holding instruments and playing music, often raucously and even joyously, was an immediate diffuser of tension. I remember warding off arrest just by playing and singing, with an officer unsure of how to apprehend me with the horn in my hands.” Due to pandemic-related lockdowns musicians were forced to adapt to the lack of playing situations by organising outdoor gigs which displaced the often transactional nature of more conventional performances, and in turn became important modes of organised resistance and protest.

The music of Elder Ones has also shifted over time, along with the group’s personnel, with only Nelson remaining from the first album’s line-up. Lopez was replaced by Nick Dunston for the second album, while the new recording features bassist Eva Lawitts replacing Dunston, Jason Nazary taking over the drum chair, and Lester St. Louis entering the fold on cello, expanding the group to a quintet and reshaping its stylistic contours. All of the musicians that have cycled through Elder Ones over the years have been part of the same tight-knit New York musical community, and two of the newcomers possess strong connections to the late trumpeter jaimie branch – the dedicatee of the new album – with Nazary playing in the duo Anteloper, while St. Louis was her melodic foil in Fly or Die. The latest iteration of Elder Ones sounds more assured or multivalent than ever. No single style has primacy any longer. Kidambi’s singing retains its strong improvisational sensibility, but it has steadily edged away from the standard grammar of jazz singing.

While strong rhythms have always been featured prominently in the group’s work, on the new album it exerts itself in a new way, with each of the four pieces containing three or four discrete episodes. The opening track ‘Third Space’ borrows a term from Indian-British theorist Homi Bhabha, a kind of liminal zone forged out of the conflict between colonialism and indigenous culture, a theoretical space that helps centre lots of work being produced today – refusing to maintain traditional borders while rejecting the voracious appetite of capitalism in its effort to transform culture into a product. The piece opens with a wobbling synthesizer tone destabilised by fiercely bowed cello and double bass drones, as Kidambi begins an incantation that indicates a lack of belonging: “Exotic vile temptress, yet submissive and oppressed / Object of desire, your white knight will save you.” Her malleable voice threads the texture-rich, levitational soundscape, pushing toward desperate shrieks, creating an almost unbearable tension that is broken three minutes into the piece by a wide, loping groove. Across the record Nazary and Lawitts sculpt such indelible moments, relieving sonic anxiety with a sudden focus and thrust that utterly recasts the music in a snap. Another shift occurs a couple of minutes later, with the groove morphing into a stuttering march-like pattern and Kidambi’s vocal abstractions transforming into a beautiful, rolling melody while the band increasingly coalesces with a swell of stabbing stuttering patterns. As Kidambi’s agitation grows, her delivery reflecting the abraded fury of early Diamanda Galas, the instrumentalists also ratchet up the noise and chaos, with Nelson unspooling a wonderfully frenzied solo.

‘Farmer’s Song’ taps explicitly into Indian classical music, with Kidambi, Nelson, and St. Louis elaborating on the same snaking line in a ravishing, enveloping dance before the leader uncorks a harmonium solo that adds a touch of qawwali into the proceedings. The piece is a working class homage, flatly and succinctly noting how the poor toil away for the benefit of the elite, “breaking our backs to make them fat.” Again, the piece is built from several linked sections, each new part opening up fresh vistas for the singer’s lyrics. There is also an extended instrumental section, with Nelson and St. Louis shaping visceral solos amid a scalding groove caked with noise and dissonance, that seems to function as a sonic protest. Likewise, the title track opens with a degree of calm, Kidambi bringing another arching melody over an ambling groove as she reflects on humanity’s endless cycles of cruelty and degradation of the weak and powerless. The piece is a response to the removal of painful monuments brought down in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, not only in the US but in other colonial powers. Her serenity is soon enveloped by sonic aggression, only to toggle into a rapid jackhammer rhythm where she finally lays out some hope for the future: “New futures, we will build new monuments, to new futures.”

The album’s final piece, ‘The Great Lie’ dispatches metaphor and allusion to articulate her fury in plain language, elucidating acts of oppression enacted to keep the ruling class wealthy and in control. Stylistically the music churns through various traditions without settling into a dominant form, building textures, counter melodies, and propulsion from any potential source, bringing the leader’s activism and still expanding musical palette together with greater cohesion and effectiveness than anything she’s ever done.

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