The stage looks like a chaos of colour, as if ready for a carnival. Sri-Lankan-born Grammy and Oscar-nominated artist Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam aka MIA enters the stage to the chorus of a screaming audience and perches herself with colourful swirling mandalas (ritual symbols in Hinduism) in the background. And just when she announces the arrival of Born free, one of her more provocative tracks, a little drummer girl with curly locks just tears through. The “holy” mess swirls and the 25-year-old girl behind an unusual drum kit (fewer cymbals and two dholaks) contorts her face and bangs her head while frantically attacking the kit. The result is some of the more crisp rhythm patterns we’ve heard in a while.
Of the numerous videos floating around on YouTube, this one introduces us to Indian-origin Kiran Gandhi, who is the drummer for famous rapper MIA, when she is not attending classes and completing assignments at Harvard Business School. “Being on tour with MIA felt like an amazing challenge for someone like me who wasn’t a professional drummer,” says Gandhi, over a phone conversation from the US. She was working at Interscope Records as an analyst when she found out that MIA, (signed with Interscope then), needed a drummer. She sent across a CD of her work via the record company’s product manager. The rapper was impressed and asked her to come on board.
This YouTube video echoes not just Gandhi’s fiery technique, but also throws light on the absence of many female drummers. But Gandhi disagrees. “I think the biggest thing keeping women from playing drums is not being able to see enough female role models playing drums professionally. Being able to listen to the other musicians you are playing with and keeping time correctly, are two skills that are far more important than being strong,” she says.
Born to Wallstreet Investment banker Vikram Gandhi and social activist Meera Gandhi, Kiran’s family wasn’t really inclined to music. But like all kids her age, Kiran went on to learn piano at school. “But that seemed like such a chore,” says Kiran, who found drums to be a source of passion at summer camp. “In drumming you just play the beat and one’s own creativity is valued more. The other systems are too set,” says Kiran, who grew up on Spice Girls and the idea of “girl power”.
But the last one-and-a-half years, touring with MIA and balancing her classes at Harvard has been challenging. “I have done a concert, taken a flight back for my morning classes and then gone back to playing a gig. If you clearly know what you want, it can be done,” says Kiran, a mathematics major from Georgetown University, who draws inspiration from Mindy Abovitz who started Tom Tom Magazine, a US magazine about female drummers.
For now, Gandhi seems convinced by MIA’s political thoughts, the ones that talk about her racial and cultural identity. Her recent song from the album Mathangi, is an example and Kiran plays that one on the tours. So when she croons, Brown girl, brown girl, turn your s*** down, you know America don’t wanna hear your sound, with Kiran on drums, is it a statement being made? “Ha! Maybe. Bad girls do it well,” she signs off.
This story appeared in print under the headline The Iron Maiden