Rupa Marya believes that the boundaries separating us from one another are largely driven by politics. As a professor of medicine at UCSF and a practicing physician at the university's affiliate hospital, she lives the gospel of responsible health care for all. Incredibly, she also makes time to front Rupa and the April Fishes, a vibrant multicultural band whose songs project a kindred tear-down-the-walls message. Their music grooves as though every day is a global New Year's Eve bash in a war zone.
On the April Fishes' second album, este mundo (this world), the singer-songwriter-guitarist continues the wide-roving explorations of her stunning 2008 debut, extraordinary rendition. She again sings in several languages —Spanish, French, and English — and her tunes mix-match musical styles including tango, waltz, polka, klezmer, and Gypsy swing. But this time out, Marya notably adds to her grab bag a reggae backbeat on the sultry slow-cooker "La Línea" ("The Line"), and skanky ska rhythms on the album's animated single, "Culpa de la Luna" ("It's the Moon's Fault"). Such adjuncts to her international mashup underscore the inclusiveness of her sound, which is impossible to pigeonhole and kind of ridiculous to describe.
For example, apt hyphenated terms like mariachi-klezmer for "Por la Frontera" ("Along the Border") or Indian-Arab-polka for "Soy Payaso" ("I Am the Clown") don't do justice to the rich organic blend of Marya's compositions. The chamberlike combo of vocals, acoustic guitar, upright bass, cello, accordion, trumpet, and drums creates a dynamic, club-friendly vibe.
Marya developed her musical ethos during her globetrotting childhood. A Bay Area native, she moved with her family to India when she was 4 years old, then to France when she was 10. Growing up among people of various ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds led to a precocious awareness of identity issues and a lifelong commitment to transcultural connections. Musically, this manifested as an abiding interest in street, folk, and roots tunes from all over — a populist approach to arts appreciation.
Marya believes the political lines that carve up the planet profoundly affect our daily existence. "When you look at the Earth from the Moon," she explains in a recent interview, "you don't see borders aside from natural boundaries." Through her work in medicine, she has witnessed the devastating affects of our nation's gatekeeping policies on the local Latino population, and dedicates her new album to the "migrantes who have lost their lives making perilous journeys in global migration in search of work and a better life."
The songwriter's passion for conveying the stories of real people gives her music an emotional power on par with the glass-smashing exuberance of the Roma Gypsies. Yet despite the upbeat bounce on a track like "Por la Frontera," her lyrics of "amarga verdad" (bitter truth) are heavy with sorrow and defiance. The translated chorus: "How can a line be worth more than a life?" Clearly, Marya is on a mission to leave the world a better place. This songmaking doctor intends to challenge the ludicrousness of all limits, musical and otherwise.