Rupa & the April Fishes: Breaking the Boundaries of Music

by    /  November 12, 2012  / No comments

Rupa, center, performing at WFUV Radio. Left: drummer Aaron Kierbel, Right: upright bassist Safa Shokrai. Photo: WFUV, Creative Commons.

Rupa Marya, the self-described “ringleader for the band of misfits known as the April Fishes,” is more than just a singer/songwriter. Her upbringing in India, San Francisco, and France has heavily influenced her music, and using her multi-lingual skills she is challenging the classification of non-English music in the United States. The first album by Rupa & the April Fishes, eXtraOrdinary rendition, was sung in a mix of French, Spanish, English, and Hindi. Este mundo, their sophomore album, is mostly in Spanish and focuses on the U.S.-Mexico border, where the April Fishes have toured extensively. The band’s third album, Build, was released this October.

The band takes its name from “poisson d’avril,” a French term that means “April fools.” Fish are an important motif to Rupa, who describes her writing process as “sitting by a stream, watching little fish go by.” For six months out of the year, the band Rupa & the April Fishes uses their voice to promote social justice, including speaking out for immigrants, disenfranchised farmers, and ethnic minorities. During the other six months Rupa works as a doctor in San Francisco.

Rupa & the April Fishes came to Pittsburgh on October 10 to promote Build. This is the first of the band’s albums to be written primarily in English, and during Rupa’s interview with Sampsonia Way she discussed the reasons for that, as well as the band’s history, how Occupy has affected public discourse, and her own challenges with free speech in the United States. With her was Benjamin Fahrer, a farmer-activist from the Permaculture Research Institute, who is touring with the band as a part of the Seed Freedom Movement.

Your latest album, Build, is primarily in English. Can you talk about why you made that decision?

A lot of this album was a reflection of our travels over the last three to four years. I wrote it during a period of major heartbreak which made me very sensitive to what was happening around me in the world. As we traveled we witnessed people affected by global upheavals in the economy and political systems. In this environment of global awakening, English seemed a straightforward language to talk about relevant things in this album.

Do you think performing non-English music in the U.S. puts you at a disadvantage? Has it given you any opportunities that an English-music band might not have received?

When dealing with the music industry there is a very rigid classification of what music in other languages should be, or how it should be perceived. It’s been challenging to try to break my own preconceptions and the preconceptions of those around me.

In San Francisco I was approached by a DJ from one of the commercial radio stations, and she said, “We’re making a CD of the most influential artists in the Bay area, and we’d like to include a song from you. We wanted to know if you have a song like ‘Poder’ but in English.” I said, “No, I don’t, but you should use ‘Poder’ because it is about crossing the border, and there are hundreds of thousands of people who live in the Bay area who have had that experience. They’d love to hear a song like this on your radio station.” Her response was, “We can’t do that because if someone scans the dial and ended up on our radio station when your song is on, they would mistake us for a Spanish-language station, and we can’t have that.” That narrow mindset in the United States, especially in the music industry, has been challenging.

Lets talk about your other profession. For six months of the year you work as a doctor. Do you feel like your work as a physician informs or influences your work as a musician? How about vice-versa?

This year I’m touring with the band. When I am home I teach and see patients at a free clinic because my goal at this stage in my life is to live off my music and practice medicine for free. This has helped me reexamine what it means to be a doctor in a capitalist society and what it means to be a doctor without tying my economic needs to the suffering of other people. It’s been inspiring because you have a very privileged view into people’s lives as a doctor, and as an artist.

Does it surprise people that you are living off music and doing medicine for free instead of vice versa?

Yeah, and it surprises me too. I think, “Oh my god, I’m so broke.” But it’s an experiment. People usually think, “Okay this is how medicine is: You put on your white coat, you have to deal with these insurance companies, and you prescribe these drugs.” I went into medicine thinking, “Oh, that feels uncomfortable. If I don’t really want to be injecting my patient with this, isn’t there another way to find health and balance? Isn’t there another way to relate to people instead of the insurance agent making enough money to buy three homes, and the patient not making enough money to get their medicine or their surgery?”

Besides having multiple professions (teacher, doctor, and musician) you have experienced multiculturalism first hand. How does this inform or influence your music?

My music is a way of understanding, and it’s an ongoing inquiry into my sense of cultural identity. I was born in California, and my parents were immigrants who were struggling to establish themselves, so they sent me and my brother back to India to live with my grandparents. Then we moved back to the United States and then to France for my father’s work. Then we moved back. When I was a child there was a constant mashing of cultures, which was very stimulating and also confusing because the expectations of me as a young girl in India were very different from what was expected of me in France and what was expected of me in California. So there was a constant questioning as to what the boundaries of expression could be, or should be.

On top of that my grandmother in India was an amazing artist who never got the chance to live that life because of the cultural context that she was in. So I was around this woman who pushed the boundaries in her own environment and challenged ideas of patriarchy and sexism in India in the 60s and 70s, which had a really huge impact on me.

  1. Band Members
  2. Rupa Marya- vocals, guitar
  3. Misha Khalikulov- cello
  4. Aaron Kierbel- percussion
  5. Rob Reich- accordion
  6. Safa Shokrai- upright bass
  7. Mario Alberto Silva- trumpet.

You have described your music as “a street party at the intersection of different streets from around the world at the time of New Years.” But besides parties and celebration, your music also addresses and denounces issues such as immigration, capitalism, and social justice. How did you develop into that?

It started with me wanting to play with a cello and writing songs that were very mellow, a little mournful, coming out of the death of my father in 2001. Then I started writing other music, and along with the loss of my father came this very deep affirmation of life. Through that came this sound that was very insistent on a positive vibe and an almost naive examination of the world. I was looking at things like “Why do we have a border between the U.S. and Mexico? Who is it serving? Who is it not serving? Who is it illicitly serving? To what end and what purpose?” These questions stimulate how I write. For me the music feels like an attempt to break some of the things that feel rigid or confining in our minds.

I went to college in San Diego, and I asked a friend who was raised in Missouri, a young Caucasian man, “Why is there a border?” He said, “What are you talking about?” When I cross this line from San Diego to Tijuana, it’s the harshest line I’ve ever seen. The amount of disparity and inequality that’s right on that line was shocking to me. He had a hard time with that question. Encountering that resistance in him led to the song “Poder” and ten years later led to that feeling of “Let’s just dance and bring ourselves together around a celebration of life.”

You did some work on the U.S.-Mexico border and your second album deals a lot with issues facing immigrants and undocumented workers. Can you talk about that experience?

Well I haven’t done enough with the U.S.-Mexico border because it’s still standing.

I’ve been inspired by living in the Mission district of San Francisco and by meeting many people who came to the hospital really late in the disease process. When I asked them why, the number one answer was because they were afraid of being deported. To me it was a travesty that people living in the United States, in San Francisco, were afraid to come to a doctor. I started learning more about the border and learning more about this migration of people, not just here but all over the world.

With that in mind the band went down to Tijuana and drove from Tijuana to Texas and interviewed people on both sides. The album Este mundo was a document. A lot of the songs came out of that experience. When we got back to San Francisco we did a multidisciplinary performance with this Pan-American group and released a public health outreach campaign to let people know where they could get healthcare in San Francisco without being deported. But it is still a problem. More people in San Francisco have been deported under Obama than before, so there’s more work to do.

My interest in and study of immigration took me down into Southern Mexico where a lot of the immigrants are coming from. This migration has been driven after NAFTA, when land that was public and available for subsistence farming was privatized and sold off to companies like Monsanto. The way our food has impacted the lives of people throughout the world and the way the food system is forcing hungry people to come north and take jobs that are toxic is criminal. They’re not safe jobs, they’re jobs that have extreme vulnerability. A lot of that inquiry into migration went into Build.

Your work with repressed people extends beyond immigrants from Mexico. I read that you take inspiration from Roma musical tradition. There is a large trend in music right now of “Gypsy folk,” “Gypsy punk,” and other “Gypsy chic” styles that seems to lack a conscious understanding of the real issues facing Romani culture today. How do you try to promote genuine awareness through your music?

The word “Roma” is how people known as gypsies, the nomadic group that originally came from India and migrated west, refer to themselves. My work with them has been through the Voice of Roma in San Francisco, which works to promote Romani culture and awareness of the history of genocide and racism that has been present in Europe for at least 1000 years.

You know this is an interesting time; the EU actually has to give citizenship rights to the Roma, who have never officially been citizens of any place. So now they have the same rights as any EU citizen, and this is bringing a lot of old racism to the forefront. It’s hard for me when I talk about music because I speak many languages, and I’m a brown woman with curly black hair, so people say, “Ohhh, she’s gypsy-rock-folk.” I have to write a polite note to promoters and say, “Excuse me, gypsy is a racist word that has been used to describe different groups of people who are nomadic, and this is their heritage, please do not use that word to describe their music.” It’s like if I were to call rap music, “Nigger rock.” But Americans are not used to the connotations of the word “gypsy,” and the history of forced sterilizations and exterminations. We’re not used to that in this country, we don’t have that history, but the word “nigger,” we know what that means, we have that history in our minds. It’s hard to send that letter, but I try to be as diligent as I can.

On a broader scale of social justice, I was wondering if any of you are involved with Occupy? What do you think of the movement?

I feel like Occupy is the North American manifestation of what we’re witnessing throughout the world. What is going on in Montreal, or in Madrid, or Greece, or Occupy, is a calling out of the economic structure in which we live. Ordinary people are stopping and asking, “Hey, why are there 30,000 homes that are now vacant? Why are elderly people being removed from their homes?” There is a ruthlessness in the financial system and a lack of accountability for those actions. I feel the Occupy movement was important for giving us a language in which ordinary people can discuss this. I was at the November 2 port shutdown in Oakland and it shocked and pleased me to see little old ladies in walkers with signs that said, “Spank the Banks.” There were parents with their children, and people of different races, and different classes, moving together in solidarity. That is an important thing for me.

I am very supportive of our creative capacity to invite people into dialogue, which is what the Occupy movement started to do, and what I feel got lost in the discourse was based around violence. The presence of violence in those movements caused a shut-down for the people who aren’t radical. Those people stopped participating. So I feel very critical about the use of violence, but Occupy is an important critique of what we are witnessing.

When Oscar Grant was shot in the back of the head after being handcuffed and immobilized on the ground by our BART police, 300 people took to the streets of Oakland to protest. The police corralled people in the streets and told them that this was not a place of lawful gathering. How have the streets of the United States become not a place of lawful gathering?

Have you ever had problems with the police at your concerts?

Last summer I was on stage at a national park in El Paso doing a concert and was told by the Park Ranger that the Mexico border was right behind me. The ranger also told me that I could not jump off this stage, there was no crowd surfing, and that I could not invite people up on stage. I said, “Okay. Is there anything else I can’t do?” And he said, “You can’t criticize the president, or make any political comments.” I said, “I’m sorry, can I not exercise my first amendment rights here?” Then he said, “This is actually not a free speech zone. The free speech zone is over the hill over there.” And I said, “Really? Your national park in the United Sates is not a free speech zone? You have to have a permit to speak publicly?” What did you do?

When I was performing I said to the audience, “Did you guys know that I’m not allowed to tell you right now…” so I just started telling them about immigration, the three walls that were being built, and I said, “I can’t tell you that because I’m not in a free speech zone.” And the ranger was just looking at me like, “Ohh, she’s doing it.” This is a crucial time for our artists because they need to be pushing the envelope. You can just see the reaction to that. It’s a scary time, it’s a beautiful time.

In the U.S. we like to think we have superior freedom of speech compared to the rest of the world. Despite this, are there issues that you feel are dangerous or difficult to talk about?

I feel it is dangerous to talk about capitalism as a bad word in the United States. It’s dangerous to critique and say, capitalism does not work to serve a sustainable vision for the earth, for humanity, for our communities, for our health. When you put greed as the number one value in a society, you will see what we’re seeing. We’re seeing environmental destruction, we’re seeing racism, we’re seeing militarism. And this is a 500 year experiment we are witnessing right now. And we are running to this point where around the world people are going, “Wait a minute, this doesn’t work. This doesn’t work for my community, this doesn’t work for my grandmother.” I’m witnessing the disparity of flagrant inequalities. That’s probably the most dangerous topic. It’s not a popular idea.

Ben: Capitalism is based on being rewarded for putting yourself first. And as we awake to more community systems and wanting to reconnect and reunite, capitalism is in opposition to that. I think that’s where we meet the most resistance from the powers that be and those that are working towards a new model.

Rupa: And it’s a strange system because we have the illusion and also the reality of freedom of speech. I’m able to sit here with you and talk about this. On the other hand when I was in Oakland organizing music for the Occupy movement, my car was very expertly broken into and everything was searched. I had about $3,000 worth of musical equipment and nothing was taken, nothing was removed, but every single piece of paper was strewn about in my car, and the door was closed. Someone was letting me know that they wanted to go through my stuff. It’s an interesting time to be an artist, even in this country.

Have you ever been censored at a show?

Never at a show, but I have had interviews where I spend 90% of my time talking about something like immigration, and then those interviews have been published with no mention of 90% of the things that I said. It is a very insidious censorship. It’s saying, “You’re free to speak, but we will only highlight these things that we want, that do not challenge our core beliefs and values in the United States.” It’s different, but it’s still there.

Your 2008 album was called EXtraOrdinary rendition. In an interview you said you hoped people would Google that term and find out more about the international process of extraordinary rendition. What ideas, themes, or events do you hope people find out more about after listening to Build?

I hope that they will go inward and outward at the same time so that they will hear the call inside themselves to build. The song “Build” was inspired by many things, one of them being my little brother, who is an urban farmer. It was also inspired by the Obama campaign of hope and change, realizing what a bunch of political theater that was, and realizing that change is not something we can elect. A representational democracy is a false democracy, because we elect people who act within their own self interest, who act within the interest of those who are in power to keep those people in power. So “Build” is a call to put your hands in the dirt yourself and build what you want in your own communities: Making new economies, new ways of healthcare, of teaching, of honoring the work that mothers do.

What’s next for the band?

We’re going to start recording our new songs. There’s going to be a remix of one of our tunes by DJ Spooky. I’d like to do a tour of the California missions by foot or bike and connect with California indigenous tribes, a kind of undoing tour. I’m still dreaming it up.

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