No borders!

Pub date August 5, 2008
WriterTodd Lavoie
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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For all the criticism we could justifiably plop down on the mighty feet of globalization, perhaps one of the few upsides worth positing as the world keeps shrinking is that cross-cultural exchange in the arts is at an all-time high. Purists can grumble at the arrival of the "world music" phenomenon and even accuse some of its Western practitioners of engaging in Colonialism 2.0, but how about a counter-argument: hasn’t the rise of the global groove fostered a greater understanding between cultures? Isn’t this what Bob Marley meant when he sang "One World, One Love"?

Singer-songwriter Rupa Marya makes a compelling case for such counter-arguments as the leader of local — but thoroughly global — culture-jumping, genre-colliding fusionists Rupa and the April Fishes. Switching gracefully between English, French, Spanish, and Hindi vocals while leading her bandmates on breathless journeys from Parisian chanson to Indian ragas, Marya offers a thrilling vision of globalization-gone-good. On their debut, XtraOrdinary rendition — originally self-issued but recently remastered and rereleased by Cumbancha — the nature of boundaries is called into question, not just in terms of nations but also in terms of musical traditions. By drawing upon so many influences — in addition to the aforementioned, we can also add Latin alternative, polka, Romani dance, tango, and American folk into the mix — they share the same mix-it-up mettle as such intrepid travelers as Manu Chao. Hardcore traditionalists they are not.

Over lunch at a Castro teahouse, Marya expresses her dual embrace of and resistance to the oft-used world music tag applied to her band’s sound. "Someone at the label came up with ‘global agit-pop’ — I kind of like that," she offers, chuckling. "’World music’ sounds meaningless, whereas at least ‘global’ is more inviting, more inclusive, to me. After all, we are playing music from all over the world! Really, though, ‘folk music’ makes the most sense to me."

Certainly the folk description does ring true. Their sound sports a distinctly populist bent, and the bulk of the songs originally started off as solo compositions — Marya alone on her acoustic guitar. Peel away the Left Bank accordion waltzes and the sweltering trumpet fanfares, and at their core these are singer-songwriter compositions designed to inspire, motivate, and comfort. This singularly folksy concept — the healing capacity of music — segues with Marya’s other profession, as a doctor. Having deftly orchestrated a schedule that allows her to concentrate on music for part of the year and on her medical practice for the other, she has realized that the seemingly disparate careers are ultimately compatible. "I’ve definitely seen how my work in one setting inspires what I do in the other," she says. "My drive to help and empower my patients often finds its way into my songwriting."

Yet the music goes beyond healing balms. EXtraOrdinary rendition‘s title should be a tip-off that Marya knows how to lead a battle cry: it refers to the torture-by-proxy tactics employed by the current administration in its so-called War on Terror. The ensemble is also passionate about raising awareness of the dubious acts perpetrated by our government in its other ongoing fixation: the US-Mexico border. "Poder," for example — a rousing Spanish-language thumper peppered by clicking castanets and a sprightly trumpet melody — meditates on the arbitrary essence of borders. "In spite of this border," Marya sings, "life is like water / It must run."

The songwriter became acutely political aware at an early age. Marya was born and raised in the Bay Area, but at age 10, moved with her family to the south of France, where she lived for a few years before returning home. The experience left a lasting impression: in addition to cultivating a love for Gallic culture, the relocation brought up issues of cultural identity and prejudice. As someone of Punjabi Indian heritage in a country with relatively few South Asians but sizable populations of largely marginalized Roma and Arab immigrants, Marya found herself on the receiving end of plenty of preconceived notions: "It was then that I began thinking more about race, about inequality, about people treating each other differently over such things. About people creating borders between each other."

Asked about the significance of borders to the band’s platform, Marya observes: "You know, I think the best comments we can get from listeners are when they tell us, ‘When I hear your stuff, I don’t know where I am.’ That’s exactly what we’re trying to do here. We want to get rid of time and space! We want them to be lost for a little while. No borders!" It’s a feat the two-year-old group — which includes Marcus Cohen on trumpet, Isabel Douglass on accordion, Aaron Kierbel on drums, Safa Shokrai on upright bass, and Pawel Walerowski on cello — manages to pull off seamlessly, whether by pairing French tales of longing with a sultry Southwestern desert groove ("La Pecheuse") or evoking sepia-toned photos of ships and sailors in a swaying folk ballad ("Wishful Thinking").

Such versatility is vital to a defiantly non-purist point of view. "This is deliberately a mélange, a smashing of things and ideas. In order to impart a feeling of freshness — and hopefully create a little confusion along the way — we don’t want to simply do what’s expected," Marya explains. "That’s what’s so great about being here in San Francisco, why we identify so closely with here. This city encourages people to get rid of their mental borders." As Rupa and the April Fishes hit the Outside Lands stage this week, their message will surely connect with a new batch of listeners, with new sets of eyes and ears willing to temporarily lose themselves among the tangos and the waltzes.

Rupa and the April Fishes play at 1:40 p.m., Sat/23, at Outside Lands Panhandle stage, Speedway Meadow.