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Rupa & the April Fishes: Social activist, doctor and artist is a modern-day Renaissance woman

Rupa_postBy Bridget Stagnitto //

Rupa Marya is a passionate musical character with an opinion about the current state of affairs, and what can be done to improve the planet. She expresses her concerns through compositions which are deliberately elevating and multifaceted. Being raised by Punjabi immigrant parents in India, France, and the Bay Area, has given her the background to comfortably create well-informed world music she likes to call “Electric Gumbo Radio”. She calls her music a “mestizo” (defined as a person of mixed ancestry) to embody a more complex, post-national identity that would invite a more diverse audience to the music.

That’s just her life in music. Did I mention that she’s also a doctor? Between tours, Rupa works at the San Francisco Free Clinic and is a professor at UCSF. When she isn’t busy healing and teaching, she produces amazing projects like Catapulta. Coordinated along with PODER (People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights), Catapulta is a multi-disciplinary performance celebrating and documenting the courage of people enduring global migrations in search of work and opportunities. Held in 2010 at the Brava theatre in San Francisco’s Mission district, the goal was to inform the city’s undocumented workers of programs that offer free or low cost healthcare without fear of being deported.

The range of social activism that Rupa engages is broad but tangible. She strives to touch the souls of real people in every venture. Her voice and delivery carry the devotion she already expresses in her actions. Reminding us of the good that exists in the world, I find myself inspired to bring out those qualities within myself. I hope she can do the same for you.

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Following the last show of their European tour, I was fortunate enough to sit down with Rupa & the April Fishes and ask a few questions over a delightful Hungarian style buffet.

Showbams: I love the song “L’elephant”. It is so dramatic in the way that the character of the elephant is depicted through the music, but it’s in French and I have no idea what it’s about.

Rupa: I wrote that song when I realized that I had really given my life to music. I made a conscious choice to allow music into my life in a certain way. I feel like I constantly remake that choice on different levels and it’s something I’m always in a relationship with. You can call it the muse or whatever you prefer. It’s very creative and destructive. It has both of those capacities to it. At least for me when I write I feel like I’m at the edge of myself. I feel like it is a possession of myself that is extremely intense and beautiful. Everything gets more beautiful, wild and crazy, and all of the beauty and terrifying nature of those things come out at the same time. I think that for me that dualism is part of the creative dialogue in my own life. So when I gave myself to music it feels like it was an elephant.

That song is about an elephant walking through the forest. It’s based on a poem by the Indian philosopher, Krishnamurti. He talks about an elephant walking through the forest and the trees are your ideas of what reality is and the truth is like an elephant that makes a path by knocking down the trees. Not out of any malice but just because that is how it walks. Then the light of the moon can shine on the ground and you can see what things really are when that force is there. Otherwise you’re obscured so much by your own ideas of what you think things are.

Showbams: I always thought about crazy elephants that come in and trample whole villages and run amok. It sounds like in that middle section that the elephant is running through the forest, but what if it just flattens everything and just lays waste to human civilization?

Rupa: Yeah, and also relationship to the ego and what you think you know and what you are so certain about. For example, there is something so liberating about death but when someone dies we focus on the mourning and terrible aspect of it. But there is another side of it that is extremely liberating that the thing you fear the most has come to pass that when that person is gone, now where are you? You are left here without that other person. So, it becomes a strange kind of liberating pain, and I see those two things as being very much hand in hand, the letting go of death as well as birth and creation. That song contains a lot of that.

Showbams: The encore and the song before the encore were so upbeat, what is that all about?

Rupa: The last song is a melding of two songs, “La Frontera”, which is along the border, “I’m going along the border, when I get there I don’t know what I’m going to do, I’m going along the border because the wind told me to, to see to see, that which I cannot believe, that a line is worth more than a life, how can a line be worth more than a life? And all along the highway I raise my voice I raise hell I’m going along the border because the wind told me to, to see to see that which I cannot believe, to see to see, a bitter truth, to see that a line is worth more than a life, how can a line be worth more than a life?” For me, that song is about the celebration of that which is natural living, as opposed to our constructions that create death and suffering for other people.

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The last song, “La Espera Luna”, I see as an indication of the end of patriarchy so “I’m waiting for the moon” is a recount of the experience of a migrant crossing the border between Mexico and the U.S. The sun is so harsh and people die of exposure as they cross, so this woman is waiting in the desert on the Camino del Diablo, the Devils Highway, which is a historical footpath between Mexico and the U.S. even before the U.S. existed. This person is waiting for the moon to arrive so she can travel safely. For me, it’s the indication of the beginning of a different era and the end of patriarchy.

Showbams: What compels you write upbeat celebratory songs when the content is so heavy?

Rupa: That’s a good question. I feel like I am drawn to things that are positive. Like sex positive, or life positive, life affirming. I like things that make me feel elevated especially when I’m going to art and especially when it’s dealing with something heavy. I want to hear the message, but I also want to feel lifted. We are so susceptible as human beings and I feel like if I’m going to bring someone something I want to give them a way to feel elevated. I don’t want to leave them feeling like they want to hurt themselves or someone else. I feel like these things need to be discussed or brought into awareness, but they need to brought into awareness with a “we can do something” attitude. Too often our culture is so demoralizing of people’s spirits that even when you call AT&T to change your cellphone service or router you get this 50-minute experience of repression. There are so many daily demoralizing things that make people feel powerless. I feel like if you are going to talk about something that’s heavy, it’s important to do it in a way that’s uplifting.

Showbams: What has the journey of the band been like?

Rupa: The only one we chose was Misha because we wrote a Craigslist ad. We wrote a Craigslist ad looking for a new cellist, and Aaron and I wrote a Craigslist ad like we wanted to date someone. But everyone else has fallen in. When we were looking for a new trumpet player, we ran into Mario at the cigar bar and we auditioned him. Jhno, I was so lucky to play with him at a gig at Yoshi’s he was playing with Todd Sickafoose, and Todd introduced us to him. It’s all been so lucky. The Ditt (Aaron) was the original one. When I had a vision of the kind of drummer I wanted to play with, I had described it to Todd Brown, the guy who runs the Red Poppy (Art House), and he introduced me to him. We got together and jammed, and it was like meeting my soul mate of music and we just had so much fun. It’s been a learning process because we’ve been like a married couple with our issues and annoyances. He also has a pure heart and innocent approach to music that I really respect and I feel works really well with what we’re doing.

Showbams: How do you balance your life with your one-year-old baby, Bija?

Rupa: I have the most awesome family and network of supporters because this band could tell me to fuck off because I don’t tour enough, or we don’t want your kid on tour or to be around your husband. Bija is a whole new level of unknown, and I don’t know how it’s going to all work out. But he is so excited by the music and that feels really good right now.

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