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The Cross-Cultural Travels Of A Singing Doctor

Rupa and the April Fishes' latest release, <em>Live at the Independent</em>, was recorded in concert at a San Francisco Walk Against Rape fundraiser.
Denis Beaumont
Courtesy of the artist
Rupa and the April Fishes' latest release, Live at the Independent, was recorded in concert at a San Francisco Walk Against Rape fundraiser.

The San Francisco Bay Area band Rupa & the April Fishes took its name from an old French joke that involves slapping unsuspecting friends on the back with paper fishes. The group's music can be just as wacky and inscrutable — but it can also be very serious.

Lead singer Rupa Marya grew up in California, France and India, the daughter of Punjabi immigrants. "There were about four or five languages being spoken at the dinner table all the time," she says. "That ended up affecting my sensitivity to sounds and languages."

She sings and writes her songs in English, Spanish, Hindi and French. The group's music has splashes of French chanson, Latino cumbia, Indian raga, Romani soul, ska, rock, jazz and cabaret. But Marya and her bandmates — bassist Safa Shokrai, drummer Aaron Kierbel, trumpeter Mario Silva and cellist Misha Khalikulov — hate labels, opting instead for descriptors like "a hurricane of influences" and "a kaleideoscope of international hipness."

When not on the road, Marya is an internist on staff at the University of California, San Francisco hospital, where she cares for terminally ill patients ("people at a pivotal moment of transition in their life," she says). She also volunteers at a free clinic in San Francisco's Mission district. The name of one of the band's songs, "Electric Gumbo Radio," is a phrase Marya heard at work one day from an intensive care patient.

"He had damage to a language center [of his brain]," Marya says. "Every day I'd go in and say, 'Do you remember who I am?' He would come up with a list of nouns and adjectives like 'lion-hearted brave face,' or just random words together. One day he looked at me and he says, 'Yeah, electric gumbo radio.' And I said, 'Whoa, wait a minute. What did he just say? He's right.' It describes what we're doing. It is like a gumbo."

Music journalist Andy Gilbert says Marya's fascinating back story and sense of mission has made her a darling of the Bay Area.

"As a doctor, she's really specialized in this area of communication in the intensive care unit, and how doctors talk to families and patients in these really sensitive, critical moments" Gilbert says. "I think she sees herself doing a similar thing in her music. She sees critical situations all over the world."

The band's second album, Este Mundo, was dedicated to immigrants who have died in the desert trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. The following album was an homage to farmers and permaculture; the band toured it with a suitcase full of heirloom seeds they distributed at concerts around the world. Their latest release, Live at the Independent, was recorded in concert at a San Francisco Walk Against Rape fundraiser.

The band tours all over the world, and its travels have given Marya a lot to write and sing about: housing, immigration, poverty, violence and freedom of expression.

"A very interesting part of our work as a band, " she says, "is just going to these places around the world and bearing witness. What's happening here in Chiapas, it's happening also in Cairo and it's happening in Madrid, and it's happening in Montreal, and it's happening in Oakland."

Something is also happening in San Francisco: The influence of the region's tech industry has made the city unaffordable for many people. Marya says she put her things in storage for two years during an extended period of touring; when she returned, things had changed.

"The rent where I used to live was increased by 300 percent — so my entire musical community has been smashed, completely destroyed, in that everyone has scattered," she says, "It was not so long ago that we had a scene that was vibrant. It does not exist anymore. We miss the weirdos and the ragtag misfits and the eco-libertarians and the wacky San Francisco people."

These days, Mayra lives in Moss Beach, in a house with a gorgeous view of the Pacific and a recording studio. Instead of commuting to the hospital on her bicycle, she drives 25 miles North to San Francisco, passing busloads of workers in the city's tech industry. She says that trip will be a theme on her next album — but right now she and her partner, an activist farmer, are busy raising their baby boy.

"His name is Bija Milagro," she says, cooing to her son, "which means seed or source of miracles."

Mayra says her dream is to be able to live off her music — so she can practice medicine for free.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.