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Amirtha Kidambi's Elder Ones - New Monuments

Amirtha Kidambi's Elder Ones - New Monuments

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Amirtha Kidambi has long affirmed that the role of music in the act of protest is pivotal. In the summer of 2020, the Brooklyn-based vocalist and composer was immersed in mass demonstrations across New York City in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, organizing bands to counter the violent presence of militarized police. “Without venues, we played in the streets, with DIY concerts popping up under bridges, in tunnels, using generators, extension cords run out of storefronts and galleries, bringing the sound of experimental and revolutionary music to a larger public, ” Kidambi recalls. For an artist and activist who once cultivated community at defunct Brooklyn spaces such as Death By Audio and the Silent Barn, these protests became a place to publicly amplify the underground. “We gained tools and tactics, we have understood the power of collectivity, that same power that I feel as an improvising musician, where hierarchies are eliminated and individuals come together to assert their voices communally.”

That subversive spirit of collective dismantlement and reassemblage serves as the catalyst for the longform cuts that comprise 'New Monuments', Kidambi’s third full-length recording with her band Elder Ones. As their leader writes in its accompanying liner notes, the title summons the “tearing down of old colonial and racist monuments and vestiges of power… in order to build new ones to the martyrs of struggle. ” Tracked at Figure 8 Studios above Prospect Park, the album is the work of an artist concerned with numerous interconnected sites of global conflict: among them, the farmers’ protests over agricultural reforms in India, the evolution of the Iranian women’s rights movement following the death of Mahsa Amini, and the continuous crescendoing call for Palestinian liberation.

This time, the Elder Ones collective consists of saxophonist Matt Nelson, cellist Lester St. Louis, bassist Eva Lawitts, and drummer Jason Nazary—all four of whom contribute their share of electronic textures and electroacoustic treatments. As a document of dissent, these four compositions give proof that improvisation is instrumental in the realm of resistance. Kidambi’s voice hovers over a scorched sonic landscape equally informed by Black American liberation music, the devotional fervor of Indian Carnatic, and the unleashing of an inner scream listeners might associate with hardcore punk and harsh noise. 'New Monuments' pays homage to “all those who tirelessly organize and resist against insurmountable headwinds”. To be sure, the propulsive presence of repetition, mantra, and call-and-response patterns instantly elicit a protest at its peak, and what remains is an ensemble ecology that fluctuates between consonance and collision.

Upon pressing play on the three-part opener 'Third Space', the disruption is as palpable as ripples in water: a synthesizer shimmers against a tremulous cello before Kidambi’s cavernous voice makes its bold entrance center stage. By the time the band storms in, her reverb-drenched long tones evolve into an eruption of short-winded shouts and squalls. Above the bellows of her harmonium, a refrain evoking exile emerges: “you don’t belong here / they don’t belong here / we don’t belong here”. The quintet then locks into a polyrhythmic pulse that conjures up the ghosts of free jazz past and present; throughout its runtime, there are flashes of Albert Ayler’s

love cry, Don Cherry’s eternal rhythms, Alice Coltrane’s ecstatic spirituality, and the fortissimo fearlessness of Kidambi’s late friend and collaborator jaimie branch, to whom the album is partly dedicated.

‘Third Space’ is the first track extracted from the album. It was written in response to the Atlanta spa mass shooting in 2021, where a white man targeted and killed Asian women. That year saw a sharp rise in anti-Asian hate, highlighting the complexity of the Asian experience in the United States and the need for solidarity between Asian, Black Americans and other marginalized groups amidst the Racial Justice movement. Often rendered invisible in the black/white paradigm, the Asian and South Asian experience exists in the contradictions of the myth of the “model minority”, the emasculation of its men, the exoticizing and subjugation of its women through an Orientalist gaze, and the dehumanization of its diaspora through American Imperialist wars. The term “third space” comes from Indian-British theorist Homi Bhabha, a space of identification which opens up in the collision of colonial power and one’s native culture, forming a complex third stream in diaspora and globalization.

As bandleader, Kidambi takes an organizer’s approach to composition and improvisation by providing ample space for collective interplay; what the listener is left with is a music without detritus, as disparate as the lived experiences the artist is invested in. “In order to achieve liberation, we must first be able to imagine it, ” Kidambi writes. “The album’s artwork by Justin Hopkins speaks to this—taking the viscer and the wreckage from the streets and reworking it into something beautiful. This is where artists have a role to play, where we can improvise, using our creativity to envision radical alternatives”. Above all, 'New Monuments' is a call to action with nothing left unsaid: it demands that the drive towards change should not only be seen, but heard.
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