Singer/songwriter Rupa Marya has always been acutely sensitive to issues of life and death. A doctor by trade, she no longer works in the intensive care unit at the UCSF Medical Center but she has spent a lot of time with patients in their final days, and many of her songs have been inspired by what she’s witnessed.
When she launched her polyglot band Rupa and the April Fishes about eight years ago, Marya was breaking through two years of musical silence following the death of her father. The result was a remarkable collection of songs -- mostly written in French -- that ended up on the band's 2008 acclaimed debut album Extraordinary Rendition (Cumbancha).
After taking a break following the birth of her son Bija Milagro last July, Marya is back in action and will be returning to the stage Friday for a concert at The Independent. The show also marks the release of the band’s latest album, Live at The Independent, a recording of a rip-roaring set that captures her mix of communal ecstasy and righteous anger, like on an incendiary cover of The Clash’s “The Guns of Brixton.” She hasn’t lost her activist edge, but Marya is definitely in a different frame of mind these days.
“This is my inauguration as a mom, and I’ve been in this other zone and world since last July,” she says. “We’re going through our songbook, picking the pieces we haven’t played out very much and reworking some songs. It’s been an opportunity to recollect and enjoy where we’ve been.”
Consisting of bassist Safa Shokrai, drummer Aaron Kierbel, trumpeter Mario Silva, cellist Misha Khalikulov, and Rupa on guitar and vocals, the April Fishes combine the topical urgency and sensual lyricism of Latin American nueva trova with an array of enticing grooves that draw from styles like reggae, cumbia, jazz, funk, and beyond. Each of the band’s three studio albums document Marya’s evolving consciousness, with 2012’s Build inspired by her growing connections to indigenous people, and their push for self-determination and sustainable farming. Writer and activist Rebecca Solnit wrote the liner notes for Build, and she’ll be on hand at the Independent Friday to preside as the evening’s guiding spirit.
“Rebecca Solnit wrote Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas and she’ll be showing maps of the city during the show, talking about shifting landscapes. In a culture where the free market dominates, the most tenderly valued thing, your home, can go up for sale in an instant,” says Marya, who notes there will be free tickets set aside for the first 10 people who present their San Francisco eviction notice at the ticket window.
The lifecycle of cities and neighborhoods has become a central focus for Marya, who has watched the diverse community of artists and musicians in the Mission District that gave birth to the April Fishes disperse throughout the region. Even Marya herself ended up being priced out of The City, which resulted in her moving about 20 miles south, down along the San Mateo coast.
Marya says that she’s felt the impact of the affordable housing crisis in the Bay Area in both the music world and her job.
“People get sick and end up getting evicted and sit in the hospital for months with nowhere to go,” she says. “When you remove an older person from their home their life starts to unravel. I call it economic violence. It’s no one’s fault. You can’t blame a person for coming into a neighborhood they like, but when it comes without protections for people it’s so horrendous and wrong.”
Motherhood has fueled her thirst for justice, but it has also changed the trajectory of her music. She’s deep at work on her next project: a collaboration with bassist/producer Todd Sickafoose that features string arrangements for the Grammy-nominated Quartet San Francisco by composer Mark Orton. (Orton is a founder of the beloved Bay Area roots chamber ensemble Tin Hat, who recently gained widespread recognition with his score for Alexander Payne’s film Nebraska).
During Marya’s stage hiatus these past several months, she says she’s been taking stock, and thinking deeply about finding a new balance between the personal and the political.
“Now when I’m working on music I’m thinking that this song will be in my son’s world, and what sounds do I want to bring to him?” Marya says.
Born in San Francisco to Punjabi Indian parents and raised for several years in the south of France, Marya grew up in a striving immigrant family with all the usual pressure to pursue a professional career. At the same time, she burned with creative energy that she longed to channel through her love of music.
She’s pulled off the difficult feat of meeting her parents’ expectations while also living out the Bohemian idyll as a musician. As a teenager she attended Castilleja in Palo Alto, and like many other high-achieving women she credits her experience in an elite all-girls school with seeding her expansive ambition.
“They sent me to an all-girls school hoping I would become a very quiet-spoken, proper Indian girl,” Marya said with a laugh. “And I think it backfired a little bit.”
Rupa and the April Fishes play the Independent on Friday, April 25, 2014 at 9 p.m. Tickets are $20. For tickets and more information, visit theindependentsf.com.