Lights blaze and flash. Smoke rises. “We are Madame Gandhi and we need your attention for the next half hour so we can calm your mind.” Kiran Gandhi’s District Drum Company light-up drum pulses as she and Alexia Riner deliver a kinetic and elevating performance during Madame Gandhi’s debut at (le) Poisson Rouge (LPR) last Tuesday night.
Madame Gandhi is the LA-based “electronic drums and vocals project that celebrates female leadership and explores themes of feminism, gender equality and liberation.” It is the project of MIA drummer, feminist activist, and Harvard Business School grad, Kiran Gandhi. She confidently moves back and forth across the stage, dancing, shaking her body to the beat, either one she has created herself through beatboxing and looping or that has been triggered by Alexia on her Ableton Push. It is catalyzing to watch and listen.
Over the last week, Gandhi has played for Sofar Sounds and at Tom Tom Magazine’s Oral History of Female Drummers event at the Brooklyn Museum, where she also spoke. Tonight, Monday, March 7, Madame Gandhi performs at the Knitting Factory (361 Metropolitan Avenue) at 7:30pm ($10 advance / $12 doors) as part of the “third annual Oxfam Jam Benefit Concert raising funds to support Oxfam America’s mission for creating solutions to poverty, hunger, and injustice.” This performance will include Madame Gandhi’s third member, DJ Ayes Cold (Ayesha Chugh).
Invited by artist, painter, poet Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh to open for his new exhibition at the Gallery at LPR, “Tiro: Millennial Soldier,” Tuesday’s performance kicked off her March of Madames tour, which takes place during women’s history month. Madame Gandhi will perform primarily up and down the east coast from NYC to Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, back to NYC, but will also include a stop in Austin for SXSW.
Before the show begins, the 5’4″ Gandhi walks out with water bottle in hand, arms around the shoulders of two friends. She is dressed in Madame Gandhi merch designed by LA-based artist Wendy Figueroa–white sweat pants and a white t-shirt with the repeating phrase ‘Hi Madame Gandhi.’ Her hair is a bright curly blond, a recent change from brown.”I just love the contrast of the darker skin with the lighter hair because that’s very rare and it just seemed beautiful.”
“[It also was] significant for me [because] my name means ray of sunlight and I think golden curls are like little rays of sunlight so there’s just something there that resonated with me. Everyone told me don’t do it, it ruins your hair…eight months later I still wanted to do it so I knew it wasn’t a phase. I had to just stop asking other peoples opinion and just do it and I could not be more happy.” ‘Just doing it’ feels like the prevailing attitude in Gandhi’s life, one that has allowed her to traverse an inspiring and eclectic path.
Though experienced touring with MIA and playing with Thievery Corporation, this is the first time Gandhi is presenting a music project of her own. Madame Gandhi blends her love for drums, her passion for tech, and her determination for gender equality. The Madame Gandhi trio has spent months working on different ways of syncing up electronic sounds. “I call it putting the soul in electronic music. Putting emotions and pain and joy and happiness and passion into a machine. A lot of times our lyrics are about love, you know, relationships that I’ve had in the past, as well as talking about a world in which I wish we lived in, that’s safer for women.”
About halfway through the set, Gandhi gets a song grooving and speaks to us of this safer world by reading an excerpt from The Feminist Utopia Project. The book, a compilation of “essays, interviews, poetry, illustrations, and short stories…[that] challenges the status quo that accepts inequality and violence as a given—and inspires us to demand a radically better future,” has guided Gandhi “because it’s a modern anthem on what young and older women want for themselves. I think when it’s spelled out really tangibly like that it makes empathy a lot easier, for others to understand the problems women still go through today.”
She shares a passage about the armor women would be equipped with in one version of a feminist utopia, speaking of a “grand plume [so that a woman] won’t make any attempt to make herself small and unseen.” Gandhi then sings her own lyrics, “I own my voice, I own my own vision and know that I’m not afraid, and we made our own choice, and no we are not afraid.” She insists that her audience take notice of the work that is still left to do in achieving gender quality.
“I want to give conversation starters actually. I want to say stuff that makes people think or question or get angry or get reactive. I want the audience members to feel thoughtful or inquisitive at the end of my show. I want them to wonder about some of the things I said and maybe bring it up with friends or maybe for the men in the audience experience a little bit of empathy for female friends in their life who have experienced things that they haven’t. I want the women in the audience to feel like somebody has the bravery to tell their story.”
During this tour, Gandhi is also hoping to connect with new people who identify with her message and want to engage in a dialogue about gender equality. “[People] who feel like they have something to support, maybe they want to do a show together, maybe they want to come to our next show [because] what we’re talking about makes them feel good. That’s really the purpose of this project.”
“Hey Mama, thank you for coming.” Gandhi greets me after the show. She calls every woman she speaks to that night ‘Mama’ so I ask her about it. She laughs, not realizing that it is a part of her vernacular, and conjectures, “a lot of the women musicians who I admired [from Georgetown University] would treat each other with respect by calling each other ‘Mama.’ It actually came from a Latin vibe. It has this respect to it, which is different than ‘babe’ or ‘baby girl,’ and that kind of thing, which is a little bit more diminutive. I like ‘Mama’ because it has a built in respect, a built in femininity, built in solidarity.” Solidarity is a cornerstone of Gandhi’s practice. “Everything that we do we try to get pretty much only women involved or supportive men who we love.”
Throughout her career, Gandhi has had a number of female influencers. In this most recent phase, she cites four: Merrill Garbus of the band tUnE-YaRdS, MIA, her boss Brooke at Interscope, and Mindy Abovitz from Tom Tom Magazine.
“[Merrill] has shared with me that anthems are good. Sometimes we don’t have to write as complicated lyrics as we think. She also taught me to keep writing, to never be attached to one piece. MIA actually taught me a similar lesson. She taught me that every piece of music that you write, you should be able to destroy it and recreate it. It should be able to do that. You shouldn’t be so attached to one version of it.”
“[Brooke] taught me about authenticity. She saw a photo of me and I wasn’t smiling and she’s like ‘why do you look so angry? That’s not your personality. You’re a warm and bubbly person, you know, and that should shine through anything that you’re putting out.'”
“And then of course Mindy is a big mentor of mine. She constantly gives love. She’s constantly humble. With each success that she has, it doesn’t change her personality and she’s always showering me with love and adoration. That really means a lot to me. It makes me want to do that for others in my life who have helped me who I’ve worked with.”
Gandhi closes with the song The Future is Female, which was evoked by a shirt with the same phrase. “I fell in love with it and it became a total anthem for my next phase. It’s such a cheer. It feels good and it feels exciting and powerful and it feels like the name of a movement. It feels like the great name of a song. It feels like what my project should and can represent.”
Madame Gandhi performs at The Knitting Factory (361 Metropolitan Avenue), Monday, March 7 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door, and benefit Oxfam. They will be back in NYC at The Bowery Ballroom on March 27 at 8:00pm. Follow Madame Gandhi on Twitter, and Instagram.