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How Drummer Kiran Gandhi Began Touring With M.I.A.

The Indian American drummer talks about her love for math, drumming, women’s empowerment and how she wants to tie them all together

Anurag Tagat May 05, 2014
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Kiran Gandhi. Photo: Courtesy of Kiran Gandhi

Kiran Gandhi. Photo: Courtesy of Kiran Gandhi

Behind the giant decorated wheels and a string of lights littered across the stage before Brit Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A goes on, 25-year-old drummer Kiran Gandhi is running around backstage looking for a Wi-Fi signal to help complete the homework she was given as part of her MBA at Harvard Business School. Says Gandhi, “It was one of those situations where I had to ask them [classmates] if they had my back on this, because after this [homework] I was getting on stage and then I was on the flight back and I’d be going straight to class on Monday.” It’s just another weekend for Gandhi, an Indian-American drummer who is juggling the life of an Ivy League school student with the life of a musician for one of the most popular artists in the world. As a touring drummer for M.I.A, Gandhi says she can handle everything else about the course except for the group projects and assignments.

Gandhi, the daughter of an investment banker Vikram Gandhi and the founder of a global charity, Meera Gandhi, first took to drumming in 2001 at a summer camp. Says Gandhi, “There was a drum set in the theater in the camp and I used to sneak away from the group and tested it. [A guy from] maintenance actually caught me playing it and I thought he was going to kick me out but he knew how to play drums.” The same winter, her family bought Gandhi her first ever drum kit and set it up in the basement of their Manhattan home in New York City. After the weekly lessons from maintenance staff at her summer camp, Gandhi took drumming classes from middle school onwards.

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Drumming, however, wasn’t the main priority for Gandhi. When she enrolled for her undergraduate degree at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., Gandhi studied math and women’s studies. Empowerment is probably one of Gandhi’s favorite words, since she also considers drumming to be a tool for female empowerment. She also found a way to plug in her love for music whilst earning her graduate degree ”“ she carried out an independent study on how to keep a drum perfectly tuned. While in D.C., Gandhi was part of several bands and formed an all-female drummer showcase called Rad Ladies That Drum in 2011. Says Gandhi, “It takes a lot of energy to prove yourself in a male-dominated space. Every show I played, people were like, ”˜Look at her go’. So I was changing their mind and changing their perspective.” On a path to shake things up, Gandhi first initiation to the world of women empowerment was when she became a fan of the Spice Girls and the widely-used phrase ”˜girl power,’ which was popularized in the late Nineties. That was also around the same time Gandhi went to live in Mumbai for three years, between 1997 and 2000. Gandhi recalls making the change in terms of the culture of education from America to India, “We had a uniform, which was a shirt and skirt. This one time I wore a T-shirt and got into a lot of trouble.”

When Gandhi first took up an internship [which later turned into a fulltime job] in digital marketing and analytics at American label Interscope records between 2011 and 2013, she moved to from one music hub to another ”“ Los Angeles, California. At office, she set up a drum kit that she occasionally played to unwind when she took a break at work. On one such occasion, a colleague video recorded Gandhi drumming to M.I.A’s “Bad Girls.” Later on, Gandhi would attend a marketing meeting regarding M.I.A’s website and tell the rapper about her video. Says Gandhi, “She asked me to send her the video of me drumming to her song. She really liked it. Then nothing happened.” It was only a year later, in February 2013, that M.I.A responded. “I’ll never forget [M.I.A’s email]. She said, ”˜I love the video, thanks for sending. We’re not on tour yet, we’re still recording, but I’ll tell you when we do.’” In the meantime, Gandhi got accepted into Harvard, left her job at Interscope and moved to Boston. Just before she was to start her MBA at Harvard, at the end of June last year, Gandhi received an email from M.I.A’s tour manager asking her to come on tour. Says Gandhi, “It was just the best note I ever got.”

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Currently a sessions drummer for the rapper’s live shows, Gandhi has got a hang of juggling her two lives as a student and a professional drummer ”“ more or less. Says Gandhi, “Everything else, apart from group projects, I have been able to manage.” She’s freed up enough time to go on tour with her psychedelic/indie band Young Old Man. Says Gandhi, “They are coming to live with me in Boston and we’re going to be writing music all summer and hopefully go on tour in the Spring, I think.” Not to let one interest outweigh the other, Gandhi will also work at the Harvard Innovation Lab to develop startup ideas. Just as Gandhi has said in her TEDx talk, “I don’t want to choose, I just want to make it work.”

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