Amirtha Kidambi: I’m equally Eastern and Western

Marta Jundziłł

She sings, plays harmonium, composes and improvises. But above all, she boldly says things that we’re often afraid to say.  Amirtha Kidambi told me today not only about her powerful music, but also about race issues, sexism, and spreading ignorance in a modern world.

Nina Simone once said that “You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” You’re a perfect example of these words. I really appreciate your political and social engagement (themes in your music such as resisting the Trump Presidency, and the police murder of Eric Garner). Why have you decided to share your personal attitudes in music? What kind of reactions do you receive from the audience?

In America, it seems that people really feel a need for the message conveyed in my music now. Many people in the audience come to me after the show to thank me for expressing anger and feelings of fear, hurt, frustration and also hope, which they feel as well. My goal is to give people a release, but also to stir something inside of them which makes them want to stand up and speak out. It has been amazing to see a similar response all over the world from Poland to Spain, Austria, Slovenia, Mexico or India…where there are extremist movements and opression happening, and can relate to the ideas of the record from many different points of view. It isn’t really about Trump (I never mention him), but about the greater trend toward ignorance and ‘untruth’, which we see all over the world.

Speaking of Trump, he has been the President of the U.S. for two years. How is his presidency effecting your every day life, as a musician?

America is an enormous country. In New York we are generally very protected and removed from a lot of the worst effects of his presidency. Our city and state governments (while they are not perfect)  continue to fund the arts, provide women’s healthcare and protect immigrants. However, the federal agencies, such as ICE do conduct raids even in New York City. While my life isn’t so directly effected day to day, I fear for my neighbors who are immigrants or my Muslim brothers and sisters who are very much effected by these policies. If our abortion and women’s health rights are taken away on a national level, that will certainly effect everyone. I think he will make it harder and harder for Americans to travel, because he is restricting travel for so many others trying to come to America, so that could definitely effect touring in the future.

You are a leader of Elder Ones. How do you manage to be a leader of group of three experienced jazz musicians?  What are the biggest challenge in this role, from your point of view, as a woman?

All three of them, Matt Nelson, Nick Dunston and Max Jaffe are incredibly respectful and I have never felt that they treat me differently as a woman. That has not always been the case, and I definitely have experienced sexism as a bandleader from other musicians I’ve worked with. They are amazing musicans and solid guys, though of course it would be great to have another woman in the band! The biggest challenge is making sure we always have work and that I can pay everyone well, booking gigs and promoting the band, but that’s the case for any band leader!

You are also involved in female vocal group – Lines Of Light. What are the differences between leading a group of men and women? Are there any?

It is definitely different. The group of women tends to be more open and emotionally supportive. There is also time in the rehearsal where we will talk about our personal lives and receive suport from each other. It’s really nice and definitely adds another dimension to the music!

Improvised music is dominated by men. What do you think: why is it like that?

Because we live in the patriarchy. All fields are dominated by men. Improvised music coming from jazz is also coming from a tradition that is historically misogynist. Often it is not just the musicians, but also labels, promoters, curators, producers, critics etc, who don’t take women seriously. Only now are we hearing about people like Mary Lou Williams, Lil Hardin, Hazel Scott, Melba Liston and Alice Coltrane. Things are definitely changing in my generation, but still we have a long way to go when it comes to gender and race, among other issues.
Have you ever felt, that you’ve been treated unfair because of your sex (at school, on the improvised scene, music competitions, jam sessions, or just in every day life)?
Yes, but I don’t even know where to begin answering this. Mostly these days, people are respectful, but sometimes I notice that men try to show that they know more than you and won’t listen to comments or suggestions given by women, even if we are more qualified. That is frustrating.

Tell me about your classical singing path: were you studying classical singing? Have you ever dreamt about La Scala, Met and those kind of stages? Why have you chosen classical education and not jazz singing classes?

I studied classical music (choirs) and jazz (big bands and combos) in grade school and high school. When I went to college, I got a scholarship (funding) from a school which only had a classical program. It was the only place I could afford to go, so I just ended up studying classical music. I didn’t make a specific decision to, though I do love a lot of the music and it has a big influence on me. I never dream of singing in opera houses, because they are inherently elitist, colonial and racist institutions, and I have no desire to perform there.

Classical singers often have problems singing without classical techniques and let’s call it – manner. You are mixing singing techniques very fluently. What is your recipe for mixing it and not ‘’closing yourself in a one music box”?

I have always sung in many different styles my entire life from choir, to jazz bands, Indian devotional music, pop/r&b, in many rock bands etc. I have been doing that since I was very young. I still sing in many different styles, so it is natural to me. It is just different vocabularies, and as an improviser it is good to be flexible and have many different approaches. I’m still studying and learning so I can always add more and expand.

You seem to be very creative and open-minded person. What does your work space look like? Do you have a special space for creating music? How does the creative  process look in your case?

Thank you! I have an office/studio in my apartment where I do most of my work and also sometimes at the New School, where I teach. I practice at least two hours a day, so that is the biggest part of my ritual. When I write, it is part of my vocal practice, so I usually improvise to find ideas and then slowly start working them out over time. I practice during the day, but I like to write music late at night.

On your debut album with Elder Ones, Holy Science you are singing in Sanskrit and it is very powerful. You’re also playing on harmonium (instrument strongly connected with India’s religious culture). How do your Indian roots effect your Western style of living and writing music?

Most of that album is actually totally abstract without any lyrics. There is one small part in the final piece called ‘’Kali-Yuga” where I use a portion of a Vedic chant in Sanskrit, which I grew up reciting and found very powerful. The sounds and syllables are thought to have innate power and transformative energy, which is why we chant them. I grew up singing Hindu devotional music with the harmonium and it is associated with a folk tradition which I grew up with called bhajan. My roots definitely effect my style and way of writing, but I have many influences, especially on the new record. There is the influence of Indian music, but also Schoenberg, Alice Coltrane, Black Sabbath and many other sounds. In my life, I live with a hybrid culture, so I’m equally Eastern and Western as I’m Indian-American. I don’t necessarily feel like I am one more than the other, but American culture often makes me feel that because I’m not white, then I’m not American.