Private Playlist: Madame Gandhi on Fela, feminism, and the bravery of Brian Eno and Jon Hassell

Photo credit: Madame Gandhi.

Private Playlist is a listening session with Southern California’s most notable musical figures in their private creative environments. Madame Gandhi is the stage alias of producer/drummer/activist Kiran Gandhi. While an undergraduate at Georgetown University, Gandhi sat in with Thievery Corporation as a drummer during their 2010 Bonnaroo set. Moving to LA, she was working as a digital analyst at Interscope Records in 2012 when she uploaded a live drum arrangement of M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” recorded at their offices. On the strength of that performance, she joined M.I.A.’s touring lineup while earning her MBA from Harvard Business School. After matriculating, in an effort to destigmatize what she called “period shame,” Gandhi ran the London Marathon in the summer of 2015 while visibly bleeding. She subsequently moved back to LA and launched her solo career as Madame Gandhi in an effort to combine her dual loves of activism and music. As an activist, she has addressed the United Nations and presented a TED Talk. Her debut EP, “Voices,” was released in 2016, followed by “Visions” in 2019. Her new video, “Waiting for Me,” premieres on June 30.

Right at the start of the quarantine, I went through every single record that I've accumulated and listened to it with a Marie Kondo mentality: "Is this a record that I want to continue living on my shelf, or do I need to pass it on to some other person who's going to love this record far more than I do?" And then, at the beginning of April, I really got to listen to music for the sake of listening to it. And it was so fun and so cathartic.

FELA RANSOME-KUTI AND THE AFRICA '70

Afrodisiac” by Fela Ransome-Kuti and the Africa '70 was among the records that I listened to over and over again.

I think the sentiment of the song "Jeun Ko Ku (Chop 'N Quench)" is around how men quench their thirst however they want, whenever they want, and at the expense of anybody. That's my reading of it. And to have an artist criticize the free will, and the honor and privilege, and the feeling that men have access to whatever men in this kind of hierarchical construct of power that's not even real power to me, because you haven't earned it. You haven't done anything to earn whatever it is you think you have access and entitlement to. And Fela challenged and questioned it.

Because beats are so good, and because rhythms are so good, we tend to tolerate a lot of problematic messaging in music. And we all partake in it. There have been plenty of times where my choice is to either stay in the club with all my friends, or stay in the fitness class, or to what to walk out and leave? These are two extreme choices, so we tolerate it, because what else are we going to do? And in my own small way, I always have conversations with people. I'll talk to the DJ or the fitness instructor and say, "Hey, you have majority women. And even if you didn't, why are you playing words that place us in a position of subservience that we wouldn't tolerate in any other context?"

I have no problem with male fantasy. But when that's the majority of what we're hearing, and we don't have the nuanced perspective of the feminine, of the gender-nonconforming, of the queer, of the trans, of the folks of color, of folks with different abilities, and our stories are being told for us, this unearned privilege becomes what's normal. And that's really what I'm trying to do with my music: make amazing beats that are musically captivating, but with a message where you're listening to another perspective. And it's exactly what Fela did.

JON HASSELL & BRIAN ENO

In the morning, I love playing an album by Jon Hassell and Brian Eno called “Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics.”

I went over to the house of my good friends Ania and Dejha. We were just going to have some wine and I was going to go home, but it ended up being a super-fun night, and I ended up crashing. And then, at 6:30 in the morning, I woke up to the sound of this creepy, dissonant, and eerie horn music. And they had lit this super-unique incense: it wasn't sage or palo santo or nag champa, it was a more obscure incense they had found. And Dejha was cooking some delicious, savory Persian egg breakfast, and I was so stimulated. I was just like, "Where am I? This is heaven. I wish I could wake up like this every morning." 

The pull-out couch is in the middle of all the action, so the record player is right there, the incense holder is right there, the kitchen is right there. And I was like, "Oh, God, I want to wake up like that, with the scent of breakfast and the candles and this incense and this music" like, a full-on stimulating experience of pleasure and of joy. And they did that to be loving to me, but this also is how they are, and they start their day together like that. It was inspiring. 

So I think maybe the bigger takeaway is that the context in which we hear an album matters. Because beyond loving the sound and the risk of the music, and the mathiness and dissonance and bravery of it, the context in which I heard it will have me love it forever. 

KONDI BAND

When I opened for Kondi Band years ago, in this small festival in Sweden, I was so blown away. I was in the green room, and I was like, "What is that?" I came back out to watch the stage, and it's this older blind Sierra Leonean musician. And he's singing at the top of his lungs — he must be in his seventies or eighties — and he's playing a thumb piano. And the two producers behind him are triggering the drums, triggering the electronic loops, and playing some of the melodies live on Ableton Push. I was like, "This is so inspiring. This is awesome. And this is a version of what I would want my project to be." It's a mixture of the rawness of the instrument and vocals with the freshness and space for experimentation that the electronics provide.

Check out KCRW’s other Private Playlists:

Inara George shares tips for raising music-literate kids during quarantine
Chris Cohen shares Algerian synth funk, avant jazz, and more far-out sounds
Hand Habits’ Meg Duffy offers an earthy soundtrack for the homebound
Mia Doi Todd recommends space-age sounds and Brazilian tunes
Neon Indian shares music for your inner monologue
Thundercat on the importance of albums as a journey
Dorian Wood is walking a tightrope and trying not to look down
Jeff Parker is busy studying music in hibernation mode
TOKiMONSTA is rediscovering her love for the guitar
Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad on finding solace in Gil Scott-Heron
Aimee Mann looks past the snark to appreciate Steely Dan’s craft

Playlist
[PLAYLIST GOES HERE]
Credits

Guest:
Madame Gandhi - producer, drummer, activist

Producer:
Myke Dodge Weiskopf