Music News
2:59 pm
Mon April 14, 2014

The Cross-Cultural Travels Of A Singing Doctor

Originally published on Mon April 14, 2014 1:55 pm

The San Francisco Bay Area band Rupa & the April Fishes took its name from an old French joke that involves slapping unsuspecting friends on the back with paper fishes. The group's music can be just as wacky and inscrutable — but it can also be very serious.

Lead singer Rupa Marya grew up in California, France and India, the daughter of Punjabi immigrants. "There were about four or five languages being spoken at the dinner table all the time," she says. "That ended up affecting my sensitivity to sounds and languages."

She sings and writes her songs in English, Spanish, Hindi and French. The group's music has splashes of French chanson, Latino cumbia, Indian raga, Romani soul, ska, rock, jazz and cabaret. But Marya and her bandmates — bassist Safa Shokrai, drummer Aaron Kierbel, trumpeter Mario Silva and cellist Misha Khalikulov — hate labels, opting instead for descriptors like "a hurricane of influences" and "a kaleideoscope of international hipness."

When not on the road, Marya is an internist on staff at the University of California, San Francisco hospital, where she cares for terminally ill patients ("people at a pivotal moment of transition in their life," she says). She also volunteers at a free clinic in San Francisco's Mission district. The name of one of the band's songs, "Electric Gumbo Radio," is a phrase Marya heard at work one day from an intensive care patient.

"He had damage to a language center [of his brain]," Marya says. "Every day I'd go in and say, 'Do you remember who I am?' He would come up with a list of nouns and adjectives like 'lion-hearted brave face,' or just random words together. One day he looked at me and he says, 'Yeah, electric gumbo radio.' And I said, 'Whoa, wait a minute. What did he just say? He's right.' It describes what we're doing. It is like a gumbo."

Music journalist Andy Gilbert says Marya's fascinating back story and sense of mission has made her a darling of the Bay Area.

"As a doctor, she's really specialized in this area of communication in the intensive care unit, and how doctors talk to families and patients in these really sensitive, critical moments" Gilbert says. "I think she sees herself doing a similar thing in her music. She sees critical situations all over the world."

The band's second album, Este Mundo, was dedicated to immigrants who have died in the desert trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. The following album was an homage to farmers and permaculture; the band toured it with a suitcase full of heirloom seeds they distributed at concerts around the world. Their latest release, Live at the Independent, was recorded in concert at a San Francisco Walk Against Rape fundraiser.

The band tours all over the world, and its travels have given Marya a lot to write and sing about: housing, immigration, poverty, violence and freedom of expression.

"A very interesting part of our work as a band, " she says, "is just going to these places around the world and bearing witness. What's happening here in Chiapas, it's happening also in Cairo and it's happening in Madrid, and it's happening in Montreal, and it's happening in Oakland."

Something is also happening in San Francisco: The influence of the region's tech industry has made the city unaffordable for many people. Marya says she put her things in storage for two years during an extended period of touring; when she returned, things had changed.

"The rent where I used to live was increased by 300 percent — so my entire musical community has been smashed, completely destroyed, in that everyone has scattered," she says, "It was not so long ago that we had a scene that was vibrant. It does not exist anymore. We miss the weirdos and the ragtag misfits and the eco-libertarians and the wacky San Francisco people."

These days, Mayra lives in Moss Beach, in a house with a gorgeous view of the Pacific and a recording studio. Instead of commuting to the hospital on her bicycle, she drives 25 miles North to San Francisco, passing busloads of workers in the city's tech industry. She says that trip will be a theme on her next album — but right now she and her partner, an activist farmer, are busy raising their baby boy.

"His name is Bija Milagro," she says, cooing to her son, "which means seed or source of miracles."

Mayra says her dream is to be able to live off her music — so she can practice medicine for free.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

And again thank you for listening. This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Tess Vigeland. The band Rupa and the April Fishes took its name from an old French joke that involves slapping unsuspecting friends on the back with paper fishes. Their music can be just as whacky and inscrutable, but it can also be very serious. The band leader, Rupa Marya, is a medical doctor. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has their story.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Here's a classic Rupa and the April Fishes escapade giving a free impromptu concert onboard a San Francisco streetcar.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARCO: The attitude has a lot to do with where they're from.

RUPA MARYA: We are from the island republic of San Francisco.

BARCO: Ring leader Rupa Marya grew up in California, France and India, the daughter of Punjabi immigrants.

MARYA: There's about four or five languages being spoken at the dinner table all the time. That ended up affecting my sensitivity to sounds and languages.

BARCO: She sings and writes her songs in English, Spanish, Hindi and French.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARCO: But Rupa and her musicians, bassist Safa Shokrai, drummer Aaron Kierbel, trumpeter Mario Silva, cellist Misha Khalikulo, hate labels. So here's how they describe what they do.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Let's see, a hurricane of influences.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: A kaleidoscope of international hypnists(ph).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Shroping the gnar.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We just learned in San Diego it's a surfing terminology. The gnar as in the gnarly sounds that we try to incorporate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARCO: The name of this song comes from something an intensive care patient once said to Marya.

MARYA: He had a damage to a language center. Every day I'd go in and say, hey do you remember who I am and he would come up with a list of nouns and adjectives like lionhearted brave face or just these random words together. And one day he looked at me, he says, yeah, electric gumbo radio. And I said, whoa, wait a minute. What did he just say? He's right, you know. So it does describe what we're going. It is like a gumbo.

BARCO: Rupa Marya's an internist on staff at the University of San Francisco hospital where she cares for terminally ill patients.

MARYA: People at a pivotal moment of transition in their life. And one of the deepest privileges of being a doctor is that you have a very intimate proximity to living and dying.

BARCO: She also volunteers at a free clinic in San Francisco's Mission District.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATION IN CLINIC)

BARCO: She spends half the year as a doctor and the other half traveling the world with her band. Music journalist Andy Gilbert says Marya's backstory and sense of mission has made her a darling of the Bay Area.

ANDY GILBERT: As a doctor she's really specialized in this area of communication in the intensive care unit. You know, working in the ICU and how the doctors talk to families and patients in these really, you know, sensitive critical moments. And I think she sort of sees herself doing a similar thing in her music.

BARCO: The band's second CD, "Este Mundo," was dedicated to immigrants who have died in the desert trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARCO: Rupa and the April Fishes' third CD was an homage to farmers and permaculture. They toured it with a suitcase full of heirloom seeds they distributed at concerts around the world. Their latest CD was recorded live at a San Francisco Walk Against Rape fundraiser. The band's global journeys have given Rupa Marya a lot to write and sing about.

MARYA: It's been a very interesting part of our work as a band, is just going to these places around the world and bearing witness. You know, yes, what's happening here in Chiapas, it's happening also in Cairo and it's happening in Madrid, and it's happening in Montreal, and it's happening in Oakland.

BARCO: Something is also happening in San Francisco where the region's tech industry has made the city unaffordable for most people including a doctor.

MARYA: I went on tour for two years and put my stuff in storage. And when I came back the rent where I used to live was increased by 300 percent. And so my entire musical community has been smashed, completely destroyed, in that everyone has scattered. And it's not so long ago that we had a scene that was vibrant. That does not exist anymore. And I don't feel like there's a welcome culture. We miss the weirdos and the ragtag misfits and the eco-libertarians and the wacky San Francisco people.

BARCO: She now lives 25 miles south in a house with a view of the Pacific and a recording studio. She and her partner, an activist farmer, are busy raising their baby boy.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATION WITH BABY)

MARYA: His name is Bija Milagro which means seed or source of miracles.

BARCO: Rupa Marya says her dream is to be able to live off her music so she can practice medicine for free. Mandali del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VIGELAND: And for Sunday that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West, I'm Tess Vigeland. Check out our weekly podcast. Look for Weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app and you can follow us on Twitter at NPRWATC. Arun Rath is back next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a terrific week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.