Sunday, November 1, 2009

Rupa & The April Fishes take in the good, bad and ugly of the border

This article was published by San Diego News Network yesterday

Rupa & The April Fishes do what they can to bridge boundaries — political, geographical and musical.

Take for example an April concert at Friendship Park south of Imperial Beach: Half the band performed in the United States while the other half played in Mexico, standing on the other side of a rusted border fence that runs into the ocean.

And consider “Este Mundo,” their latest album: As songwriter Rupa sings alternately in French, Spanish and English, the band swerves seamlessly from heady Indian raga into festive Jewish klezmer into romantic French chanson, sometimes in the same song.

The problem is that boundaries can be hard to surmount, a point that became glaringly clear when the band toured the U.S.-Mexico border region last April. At a hostel for migrants in Tijuana, Rupa met a man who had smashed his ankle and barely survived his journey across the border. And near El Centro, they explored a cemetery filled with over 500 unmarked graves — all of them migrants who had perished during their sojourns across the unforgiving desert lying between Tijuana and San Diego.

“Este Mundo” is dedicated to the thousands of migrants who passed away while trying to cross the border. But the album is anything but grave. In fact, it’s rather carnival-esque, driven by upbeat rhythms, bright melodies and tender lyrics. Even the sadder moments are full of gusto: Over the wacky boom-chuck and off-beat accordion pumps of “Por La Frontera,” Rupa asks in Spanish, “How can a line be worth more than a life?”

Rupa, a 34-year-old physician who tends to sick patients in a San Francisco hospital when she is not on tour, wants her music to consider both hope and tragedy. After all, she points out, the lovely shores of the Pacific Coast are less than an hour’s drive west of the rugged canyons of East County’s backcountry.

“That kind of contrast is the truth of life—it’s not all joyful, and it’s not all miserable. It’s not all struggle, it’s not all celebration. But there seem to be equal parts of these things,” she said. “I feel like honest art, for me, is something that can try to hold those poles in the same word, in the same gesture, in the same song.”

In part, the April Fishes are an expression of Rupa’s own complex identity. Her parents are from India; she grew up in Southern California, and she has also spent time in Southern France.

“I consider myself a citizen of the world,” she said. “I’ve been living in several different cultures and I wanted to give a musical voice to that experience.”

But the band’s sound — a synthesis of Balkan-styled accordion passages, languorous draws on the cello, heavy trumpet lines, jumpy upright-bass solos, Latin-tinged rhythms, and Rupa’s laid-back acoustic guitar strums — isn’t exactly serious. Feeling more light-hearted than Manu Chao, it’s actually a lot of fun.

That’s not to say that the songwriting process has always come easily. For two years, the band struggled with “Soy Payaso,” a downright schizophrenic song that begins with a dark flute passage and languid pops of tabla, segues into a madcap Jewish wedding tune with swirls of accordion and chants of “Hey!” and finally moves into the kind of upbeat French swing that belongs in a smoky cabaret.

“It took years to be able to play that song well, so that it felt that the styles were seamlessly blending together out of the same mouth, not like five different people talking at the same time,” Rupa said. “It takes living and breathing and sweating and loving each other, being kind to each other, learning about each other, spending time together and talking about music and working on music.”

Eventually, it came together. “Now, we’ve got it in our hands and we can play with it,” she said. “Every time we play it, I think, ‘Oh my god, is the audience gonna go with us?’ And every time we play it, it’s a total ride.”

Touring along the U.S.-Mexico border was an intense experience all its own. Recently, the band finished an hour’s worth of music telling the stories of the people they interviewed between shows, who had faced danger and hardship on journeys across the border, or who had plans to.

Whether it’s the good or the bad, though, the band has been eager to soak it all in.

“There’s a real hunger and curiosity — everyone exhibits a complete life curiosity, like almost at all time,” Rupa said of her bandmates. “This whole thing is just one giant experiment and God knows where it’s gonna go and what the next step is, but it’s been quite a ride.”

Peter Holslin writes about music for SDNN.

Event info
Who: Rupa & The April Fishes
When: 9 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 4
Where: The Loft (UCSD)
Tickets: $5-$12

Event info
Who: Rupa & The April Fishes
When: 9 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 5
Where: El Lugar del Nopal, Tijuana

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