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A delicate balancing act for Rupa Marya

The Bay Area doctor-musician combines lyrics of longing, loss and love with rollicking tunes in the cabaret combo April Fishes. They play the Mint on Friday.

November 01, 2009|Andrew Gilbert

BERKELEY — By day, Dr. Rupa Marya tends to critical-care patients at UC San Francisco, where she teaches intern physicians about communicating with people facing life and death decisions.

By night, she sheds her last name, picks up a guitar and leads Rupa & the April Fishes, a rollicking world cabaret combo that has won an international following thanks largely to her poetically charged songs in Spanish, French and English.

The band celebrates the release of its newest album, "Este Mundo," at the Mint on Friday, headlining a triple bill with the Chicano rockers Ollin and the flamenco hip-hop project Granada Doaba.

Rupa's medical and musical pursuits might seem divergent, but she sees her two careers as inextricably linked. While her hit 2008 debut album, "Extraordinary Rendition," features songs written in response to the climate of fear following the Sept. 11 attacks, much of the material on "Este Mundo" flows from her experience caring for undocumented immigrants who ended up in the hospital with dire medical conditions.

She prodded patients to find out why they had delayed seeking treatment. "After enough pushing, they'd tell me, 'I was afraid. I have three children here and my husband is here and I didn't want to be deported,' " Rupa said during a recent interview at a Berkeley cafe. "Or they said, 'I came here to work in the fields and I was afraid that if I told anyone I needed medical help I would lose my job and I would be kicked out.' That was the blanket of fear I started to look under."

Born in San Francisco to Punjabi Indian parents and raised for several years in the South of France, Rupa brings a polyglot sensibility to the sickbed and the bandstand. With her cascade of shiny brown curls, easy smile and fine-boned features, she radiates fierce intelligence and empathy, qualities that might well inspire confidence among people living under society's radar.

Her evolving creative vision has won converts across the Bay Area's inventive acoustic music scene, attracting musicians steeped in jazz, tango, klezmer, Latin American and Balkan traditions. The April Fishes' latest incarnation features trumpeter Marcus Cohen, Isabel Douglass on accordion and vocals, percussionist Aaron Kierbel, upright bassist Safa Shokrai and recent UCLA graduate Mikhael Khalikulov on cello.

Combining the sensual lyricism of Latin American nueva trova with the rhythmic punch of cumbia and the theatricality of cabaret, the April Fishes' sound is ecstatic and powerfully evocative.

"Even though the subject matter is heavy, we're trying to walk that tightrope between the living and the dying, between the suffering and the celebrating, not ignoring either one for the sake of ease," Rupa said. "I feel like it's my constant koan, something I keep returning to, trying to understand how to do."

Judging from her new songs on "Este Mundo," Rupa has found a delicate balance. Rather than polemical broadsides detailing her position on immigration policy, her lyrics pose intimate questions exploring universal themes of longing, loss and love.

The band has spent a good deal of time on the U.S.-Mexican border over the last year, often playing for people deported back to Mexico. "Este Mundo" is dedicated to migrants who have died crossing the arid Southwest.

"I enjoy bands and artwork that really rages, but my interest is in looking at something I think I know and understand, and asking myself to transcend my own ideas to look at it again and again," Rupa said.



Rupa &

the April Fishes

Where: The Mint, 6010 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 11 p.m Friday

Price: $12 in advance, $15 at the door

Contact: (323) 954-9400,

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