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Expression of Life: The Rupa Marya Interview

Pittsburgh Music Magazine had the enlightening opportunity to catch up with the incomparable Rupa Marya, front woman and pilot of the expedition that is Rupa & The April Fishes. But, as if to exeplify the humanism she espouses, Rupa is far more than simply a star musician. The San Francisco band has built a major following and an impressive song book that they have been playing out to crowds internationally – from free street side performances in barrios in India, to music festivals in the Bay Area.  Rupa is currently on tour with The April Fishes and their newest album “BUILD.” This Wednesday they are headed for Pittsburgh to play Thunderbird Cafe (9:00PM/$12), we spoke Saturday morning as they were at the Shakori Hills Grass Roots Festival in Pittsboro, North Carolina.

PMM: Bon Jour, Buenos Dias, and Good Morning! An immediately obvious feature of your music is that you are multilingual in your composition. In many cases this matches up closely with the style of the music itself and you’ve also said that you intentionally write music in a variety of languages as a means of creating an accessible, open forum for a diverse audience to participate in, can you share some more about the decisions that guide your choices about language in your songs?

Rupa: Well, it’s mostly where I am and who I’m around, and what I’m trying to say, that dictates the language I write in, and you know, the groove, what the groove is asking for – most of my songs start with a groove, and it sort of goes from there. I do feel that having a palette of languages and sounds recreates how I see the world and what I’m trying to pay attention to. So, like any environment you go to, here even, driving in North Carolina, in this hotel, if you sit an listen and pay attention to who is around you, immediately you’ll find at least two or three different languages being spoken – but our image of the world being, or even just this country being, English only is just not representational of what is actually happening. And to me there is a beauty in that, in the cacophony of sounds.

PMM: And I know that for you, being from the Mission [San Francisco]…

Rupa: Yeah, the Mission, I love it. It’s an interesting place of contradiction, and change, and you know, many different cultures up against each other, which is always a cool fertile ground for creativity and expression. It’s beautiful, it’s a very cool spot!

PMM: Nice! Yeah, can I ask you actually, I saw a documentary where you were talking about the murals [in the Mission] making you want to create music. Do you have any specific examples of a song born out of one particular one, or is there anything about that process you can share?

Rupa: Umm… there’s a mural down in Cochabamba, Bolivia that was painted by a muralist who’s from San Francisco, and her relating her story of painting that mural and what’s in the mural, and why she went down there, ended up on our next album…

PMM: Now, is that Mona Caron?

Rupa: Yes, that’s Mona Caron and the song is Cochabamba, and it’s about the privatization of the waterways in Cochabamba in 2000. And so, Mona went down there in 2010 for the ten year anniversary of the Water Wars, to celebrate the fact that the people of Cochabamba and the surrounding areas have resisted the attempted privatization of their water. And that… that was significant… you know, mural, music, moment, journey!

PMM: Wow, yeah… that’s really bringing it all together. I also read that you are planning to start a project to travel together with her to create public visual art with sound compositions. Can you speak to that a little bit?

Rupa: Well one thing that Mona has been doing is drawing, painting, giant plants, weeds, around on streets, just on raw buildings, and then filming them and then I’ll be setting those to music. And she did travel with us to Athens and to India last year to paint, and that was an amazing thing. I’m looking forward to that collaboration. So right now we are touring with this album, but that is something I am excited about. Mona does these really beautiful, greater-than-life plants and vegetables, and she takes something that is cast aside from our attention and just blows it up in the most beautiful way on a wall. It’s just this simple, beautiful, quietly revolutionary act of training our attention to something we have neglected or purposefully eradicated.

PMM: Absolutely, in a simple aesthetic way…

Rupa: Yes.

PMM: How would you say, musically, that goes with your process with The April Fishes?

Rupa: Well it’s definitely inspiring and our art is definitely in conversation with each other. For me, I’ve been very interested in invisible things as well, in particular people… people who in our society are trying to be invisible from being in a place where they’re “not supposed to be” as we have with a lot of the undocumented migration that is going on around the world – this is a forced migration, an economic migration, most often, if you look at Mexico for example, with the privatization of lands that was used for subsistence farming by poor people, in the 1990s with NAFTA, there has been a huge influx of people coming here, to farm and get work. And they don’t want to be here, but they don’t have an option economically in their home countries. So having economic systems that create and recreate poverty in certain nations in the global South drives these mass migrations of people up here.

So for me, in my work, I am learning how to notice that and to pay attention, and to speak to that and honor that and also try to create a bridge… usually when we hear about when we hear about the immigration issue, it’s couched in these political terms that remove the humanity from the situation, and takes away our ability to be compassionate… what we are talking about are people’s lives… and if people just spend more time around one another we will find we have more in common than we do have different. So that is part of my music, is to try to get that vibe in our midst.

PMM: That’s fantastic, and I’m really putting it together in my mind with The Grapes of Wrath, and what we can do in a contemporary sense to recognize the realities of the world we are living in.

Rupa: Steinbeck was an amazing, an amazing, documenter of what was happening in California… and I would like to do more around farming in California in particular, in the legacy of what John Steinbeck did he wrote these amazing essays on the Gypsy Harvest,  these huge groups of people coming from different lands – they were Punjabi, or they were Chinese, or they were Mexican, or they were Irish, there were just these waves of people coming through to do the work that other people didn’t want to do… this essential work so that people can eat. And it’s been a very vulnerable group of people in California, working in our valleys.

PMM: I’m also a big fan of Pablo Neruda, so I obviously recognize and gravitate to your song “Neruda” on Este Mundo.

Rupa: Neruda is… I call him my “original love,” my first love. He is just so powerful in how he articulates beauty in life and struggle and just these tiny, tiny moments. I love his sense of humor, I love his… the insistence with which he lived his life. I remember there’s one line from his poetry, “They’ll have to really scrub me from the chalkboard, I lived sooo intensely.” That, that feels great.

He was also a poet who did a lot of travel and was very aware of the power dynamic in his niche. For me power dynamic is a very interesting thing, politics feels like a theater of distraction, like the presidential debate with Obama and Romney …we are choosing two different versions of the same kind of policies, it’s not going to be that different, truly it’s not going to be that different. It feels like an element of distraction while… um, where’s all the money going? And so to me that is really less interesting than the power dynamics between people. Who’s really holding the power and how’s it being wielded? How is it being shaped in our midst?

And the album [BUILD] deals with this… just a call to find that power inside of ourselves, and inside of our communities, and between ourselves – the more we divide ourselves with these ideas the less we are going to be able put in our effort and build bridges, and grow what we actually need and want; in our cities, in our communities, and in our own midst. And I think it is much easier to get lost in the emotional trappings of politics.

PMM: I really appreciate your point there about distraction, because it is creating the primary focus for us, but totally taking our minds off of all of the things we could actually do as opposed to being stuck there watching it happen. Yeah…

Rupa: Yeah, there is a very strange type of mute-ism that is going on in our society and when people do have the courage to speak out, what happens? And how do we return to this mute state? We’ve seen the banks in the last five years, gamble and lose peoples money, students racked with debt they’ll never be able to pay back… and there is very little sounding out against this. To me it’s kind of interesting… we’re watching, as gas prices go up over $4 a gallon, almost to $5 a gallon, I’m wondering how it never quite gets to $5 a gallon. It’s like the people aren’t ready for that, cause that’s when they’ll really get out in the streets. But it’s just an interesting economic time that we live in and for me to listen to the mute nature of people… speaks to me as the fact that people do not feel empowered to demand what they want… and to ask for what they want.

And we get stuck on these lesser issues, to me… they’re important issues, but they become like these little wedge issues that drive people apart from each other. I mean we could spend all day arguing about… abortion… between two people… you could spend your whole life arguing these things, meanwhile people don’t get healthcare, people don’t get quality education, teachers are being laid of, and banks are cleaning us all out.

PMM: And all of the things that could be preventative to the issues we are stuck on are never dealt with because we are stuck on these issues.

Rupa: Exactly.

PMM: I read that you studied Post-War Political Theater, I can feel a lot of that coming through on top of this notion, not only of what politics are, but how we experience them and what is the audience doing while these things are going on…

Rupa: It’s an interesting time to be an artist for sure. On the one hand you just want to bring people into a really good vibe, you know, to create a space where they can resonate with each other, where they can feel hope and awaken, and that to me is the primary substance of music. Awaken, enliven, and get us sort of vibrating together, and then there’s these things, like how do you use your art to articulate some of these things. How is the form of the art articulated? How is the content of the art articulated? For me it’s still an ongoing experiment.

PMM: Um… Wow. So you are a step ahead of me, because I was going to ask about that fact that you are a doctor and that you’ve been a professor of Internal Medicine at UCSF Medical Center, really… your polymath abilities are pretty staggering. I was going to ask you how you balance the passions of music and medicine, and politics, and yet… correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like you don’t think of them as different things, so much as different aspects of the same thing.

Rupa: Yeah, for sure, and I appreciate you calling them both passions because they are. For me they are an expression of life, and being a doctor allows a certain proximity to witnessing life, which is really inspiring and exciting for music and other things. But it is a balancing act, and I’m still learning how to do it. This year, on music, I’ve been traveling with the band and trying to make my living on the music because when I return to town I will be working at an immigrant free clinic for people in San Francisco,for people who don’t have papers…

PMM: People who otherwise would be afraid to try to get help.

Rupa: Exactly. And so it is an interesting to try to separate my practice of medicine from my economic need, because it creates some space to think about “What does it meant to be a doctor?” “What does it mean to make your income off of people’s suffering?” When people suffer, there’s a gain that’s involved, and I feel that that mathematical equation has not listened to the problems that we face with health insurance companies and the privatization of the healthcare sector in the United States. Yeah, it’s tricky. It’s a tricky thing.

If you ask the question, should a healthcare insurance executive… I met a couple folks the other day who bought their second home for $8 million in Hawaii, their first home is in Rhode Island, and I asked them what they both did and they said, “We’re healthcare insurance financial officers.” And I thought “Wow! OK, so now we know how the money is being allocated.” Would you even want to live in a world where $8 million can be extracted from the health insurance sector to provide for a second home for an executive? Or would you want that money to be available for people who are being refused for their MRIs, and their surgeries, and their procedures? And it’s not “right” or “wrong,” it’s just “What kind of world do we want to live in?”

And that’s what I mean about the distraction. The distraction around Obamacare was, you know, Democrat v. Republican. When the real issue is, I feel, why are we further entrenching… why are we mandating now that everyone has to pay for private insurance, that is a federally mandated thing. So the people who bought that $8 million dollar home are ensured an increase in their income. More money is going to be funneled into the private sector off of healthcare and I don’t really want to profit off of my patients, I want to take care of them, I want to take good care of them.

I want to be supported by taking care of them, I want to able to afford to live in the community where I work, so that I can see my patients walking around on the streets and get a sense of what it means to live and work in that group of people. But, I don’t need to make an extra buck off of every colonoscopy. So it’s an interesting question… are there things we should not be making profits off of? It’s just a question.

PMM: And that example brings us kind of full circle, because when we talk about Hawaii there is another indigenous people, who are off the radar for most people, in terms of what’s happened to their land and their access to food, water, and healthy environments.

Rupa: Yeah, and Hawaii is very interesting because that indigenous population that is very much alive and kicking… unlike many of the indigenous populations, which are still alive, but even more invisible on the mainlands of the United States. Hawaii is a very interesting place to examine “How do we want to relate to groups of people who have been marginalized or pushed off to the side?” I would hope for greater dialogue, greater compassion and an ability to heal some of those wounds that happened before we all arrived here, and not in a way that punishes, but in a way that gives respect and accountability for people’s voices.

PMM: What are some of your favorite songs on the new album… do you love them all?

Rupa: I really do love them. I really love [the title track] Build, the way we started it and the way we ended up. It is a very strong song for me to sing and every time I sing it I am confronted with the words and how it is asking me to have faith in my own self, and asking people to have faith in themselves. In our creative capacity, in witnessing the world in upheaval in the last two years… there is a choice we have to all make between our creative capacity and our anti-creative capacity. We can choose to become violent and rageful or we can choose to take that energy and really invest in creating a new paradigm… in a paradigm that will make this old one obsolete, because it is simply better, more intuitive, more intelligent. And that’s a harder road, it is easier to rail, it’s easier to rage…

PMM: …and to participate in the distraction theater.

Rupa: Yeah, cause there you expend energy and people feel more powerful, but that’s not going to help. What we actually need right now is creating new economies, new modes of economy, new dynamics between people, new relationships to the land and farming, new relationships to health, new relationships to education, and to awaken a population that has fallen asleep at the wheel. When you live in a representational democracy there is this false sense that you can just relegate the job to someone else and they’ll get it done, they know what’s what. In the meantime look at where all of our resources are going. And we have to demand what we want as a population… and if this is the best we can do… I don’t think it is. And so I think it has to happen at a small level and it’s great to be in a place like San Francisco, where there are lots of activated people and dialogue.

PMM: And the dialogue is alive. So, when you come to Pittsburgh, the venue you are going to be playing is kind of boutique-y in a sense. I know that you play a variety of venues, do you have an audience size that you love for your music? Do you get a lot out of different ones?

Rupa: I love the variety. So today we are playing a big festival, and we are going to play what we call the “power set,” and rock… finding the nicht. When we are in a smaller place it’s nice because you can talk to the audience and develop a rapport. So it’s just different, every show is different. We played in Pittsburgh once before, years ago, so people don’t really know about it… so we’re hoping to get the word out and share our evening.

Rupa & The April Fishes play Thunderbird Cafe, Wednesday, October 10, 2012 @ 9:00PM

BUILD by Rupa & The April Fishes is out from INGROOVES Records and available on Amazon and iTunes.

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