Let Amirtha Kidambi’s New Monuments be your call to action

New Monuments be your call to action”>

Amirtha Kidambi’s Elder Ones (current lineup). Photo by Caroline Harrison.


For most of her career, Amirtha Kidambi didn’t refer to herself as an activist, in the same way she didn’t consider herself a Carnatic singer despite studying the form for years. Both of these practices, she explained in a 2017 interview, are lifelong callings. And Kidambi, while channeling both a revolutionary spirit and elements of Carnatic music — a form of classical Indian songcraft rooted in ancient Hindu traditions — in her explosive strain of free jazz, has tended to follow her own, separate vision. In her earliest works, she sang strictly in phonemes, avoiding not only English words but also the symbolically significant syllables associated with Carnatic ragas and the tropes of jazz scatting (e.g. “daba-dooby”). “I wanna be a horn!” she said in the same interview. “I want to have the freedom to be liberated from text when I’m into a solo or improvising.”

In recent years, however, she’s stepped into the role of activist with fervor. During 2020’s George Floyd protests, she organized musicians to preempt potential violence from cops in riot gear with the force of their instruments. An active member of New York City’s DIY scene since her arrival in 2009, she now undeniably occupies a leadership position.

New Monuments, Kidambi’s third album at the helm of her rotating collective Elder Ones, is both an artistic tour de force and the most incisive clarion call in her catalog. A four-part ode to “all those who tirelessly organize and resist against insurmountable headwinds,” it finds Kidambi incorporating more text into her music than ever before, stirring strands of traditional singing into a stew of extended technique, using repeated phrases to articulate messages too urgent to transmit via abstract sound.

About a third of the way through the project’s opener, “Third Space,” for instance, her squeaks and moans fade out along with a theremin-like synth and Lester St. Louis’s frantic cello bowing, making way for a steady groove in the bass-and-drum rhythm section (Eva Lawitz and Jason Nazary, respectively) that’s mirrored by Matt Nelson’s soprano sax and a morphing mantra from Kidambi: “You/They/We don’t belong here.”

“Farmer’s Song,” a track inspired by the North Indian farmers’ protests, charts an opposite course, starting with a structured, phonemic groove before denaturing into abstract English. Kidambi stretches the syllables of English words beyond their snapping points, separating and reattaching them to their meaning at will. This alchemy is accomplished over an immensely complex slurry of analog synths and live instruments, including Kidambi’s quavering, hand-pumped harmonium.

Where the first half of New Monuments deals in fragments, the album’s second side is more direct. The record’s title is uttered (in its titular track) as part of its de facto mission statement: “We will build new monuments to / Those who suffered centuries through. / We will build new monuments to / Those who have no rights, those who lost their lives.”

New Monuments’ closer, “The Great Lie,” is, unlike the record’s first three slowly developed songs, packed full of text, though still punctuated by passages of pure improvisation (Nelson’s sax solo alone is evidence of free music’s ecstatic potential). It’s as if the words have been accumulating in Kidambi’s throat all record long, waiting for its final track’s dirgelike intro to spill out in a near monotone. Though it’s never clearly defined, the great lie she sings of is an amalgamation of smaller ones: that the pursuit of happiness must come at the expense of others, that we’re too weak to rise up against the overwhelming power of the ruling class, that we need to shoulder our burdens in solitude.

Kidambi is living proof of this final myth’s falsehood. Even as she’s continued to forge her own path, obsessed with making art that’s truly original, she’s rarely walked it alone. She wrote the majority of New Monuments in 2020 but spent the next two years fine-tuning it with her band through trial and error at live shows before sitting down to record. Like all effective activists — and most great improvisers — Kidambi knows that collaboration is the surest path to impact.