Doctor, Musician and Activist Rupa Marya Offers a Healing Balm on New April Fishes Album

Rupa Marya has spent her career fighting racism in the medical system. Her latest album with the April Fishes is their fiercest yet. (Rupa and the April Fishes/YouTube)

For many Bay Area musicians, holding down a day job is a necessary, unglamorous concession to a challenging economic reality rarely mentioned on stage.

But instead of compartmentalizing her various callings, Rupa Marya increasingly finds that her identities as a musician, physician, activist, parent and life partner overlap and converge. Whether protesting at Standing Rock, writing music with her band, Rupa and the April Fishes, or teaching hospital medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, Marya's diagnosis of society's ills and her vision for healing guides her approach. Her new album, Growing Upward, Rupa and the April Fishes' sixth release, is by far her fiercest yet.

Compared to previous albums, Growing Upward focuses less on showcasing the band's stylistic diversity, pushing emotional parameters instead. Marya's guitar work and vocals sound urgent and aggressive, yet tenderly inviting. Her music rocks harder, throwing down a gauntlet at the frontlines where the fight against climate change and indigenous rights merge with the struggle for police accountability.

"This music is coming directly out of being there with people at Standing Rock as the police shot rubber bullets into their faces and groins, from watching families torn up because their unarmed child has been shot by the SFPD," says Marya, who celebrates the release of Growing Upward (due out April 19) at The Chapel in San Francisco on April 26 on a double bill with Barrio Manouche, a band she's championed since they first came together in Berkeley about five years ago. She also performs May 26 at Moe’s Alley in Santa Cruz on a double bill with LoCura.

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Marya's music draws on a wide array of cultural traditions, and her multifarious Fishes include some of the region’s most inventive players, including violinist Matthew Szemela, cellist Misha Khalikulov, trumpeter Mario Alberto Silva, bassist-for-all-situations Daniel Fabricant, drummer Aaron Kierbel, and renegade sound designer JHNO (a.k.a. John Eichenseer).

Since the release of Marya's debut album eXtraOrdinary Rendition (Cumbancha) in 2008, her music has reflected her political commitments. When she emerged on the Mission District scene as a world-cabaret troubadour, her playfully polyglot repertoire featured her original songs in French, Spanish, English and Hindi. The fact that many listeners didn't understand the lyrics didn't give the band pause.

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"Our initial sound was whimsical, circus-pirate music that reflected what was happening on Mission scene at the time," says drummer Aaron Kierbel, the only original Fish still in the band. "Our whole name, April Fishes, coming from the French holiday, embraced the character of the holy fool who transmits wisdom through humor and play."

Rather than relegating her healing practice to her job at UC San Francisco, Marya says, "I see how important it is to take it out of the hospital into places I usually bring my guitar: into the street. My work is about zooming out to see where the pathology is, where the hurting is, so that we can move forward. I've never felt so embracing of my whole identity before."

Rupa and the April Fishes celebrate the release of the new album 'Growing Upward' at The Chapel on April 26.
Rupa and the April Fishes celebrate the release of the new album 'Growing Upward' at The Chapel on April 26. (Courtesy of Rupa and the April Fishes)

Marya has rarely shied away from taking risks on and off the bandstand. She was the lead plaintiff in the legal case that led to the song "Happy Birthday" entering the public domain in 2016, an effort for which she could have incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees had Warner/Chappell prevailed in keeping the ubiquitous ditty under copyright. Now available free to anyone who wants to include the song on an album, film or broadcast, "Happy Birthday" opened the door for other ubiquitous songs to enter the public domain (Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" is next in the queue).

Over the past decade Marya has become one of the Bay Area's most visible activists on a number of progressive fronts, particularly police violence and racism in the medical system (a Now This video of her speaking at a conference on race and medicine has been viewed more than 12 million times on Facebook).

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On Growing Upward, Marya's lyrics are now almost entirely in English, and the messages are poetic but blunt, whether she’s decrying the enduring legacy of colonization in "Stolen Lands" or painting a picture of environmental degradation on the title track, singing, "They clouded up your mind with rent and debt / They suffocate with a petrochemical net." It might sound bleak, but the song is a stirring call to action, and its central theme is set to a hip–hop-inflected beat.

"There's always an element of wanting to leave people energized to go out and do the good work," says Kierbel, who's also a founding member of Cosa Nostra Strings, a Jazz Mafia spin off. "The music has matured a lot and it takes a lot of courage to evolve your sound, not doing the same thing that you know works. People ask for certain songs, and we don't do them anymore. She really believes in where she's going and I trust her artistic vision."

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The emotional immediacy of Marya's music doesn't just reflect her experiences traveling the world as an activist and musician. The most profound change in recent years came on the home front with her husband, organic farmer Benjamin Fahrer, and the birth of their two sons. The act of creation seemed to open up the creative floodgates while raising the stakes for fighting for a better world.

"Becoming a mother between the last album and this one made me focus even more on the importance of what’s happening right now," Marya says. "My son's coming of age is coinciding with climate catastrophe, and we're watching it happen. We had three weeks last fall when we couldn't breathe.

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She continues, "This album is a chance to elevate our perspective and look clearly to what’s hurting." And maybe dance together while strategizing for the future.

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