“I love finding different methods of making music. For me the constraints of genre feel just as provincial as the constraints of nationality,” says Rupa Marya. This statement perfectly sums up her approach to music. I had the pleasure of playing with Marya and her San Francisco-based band The April Fishes last weekend at the Jazz Kitchen. I was amazed by her excellent songwriting and ability to convincingly interpret a dizzying range of material from Bollywood legend Kishore Kumar to The Clash.
Aside from her full-time career in music, Marya is also a physician and professor of internal medicine. I was extremely grateful that the impossibly busy singer took time speak with me after the show. We discussed her work as an activist and how it connects to her path in music.
NUVO: Can you tell me about the seed exchange program on your current tour? How does this relate to your music?
Rupa Marya: We have a case of heirloom seeds on tour with us and we’ve been trading them at our shows. We’ve been advertising that the first 10 farmers who come in with seeds can get in for free.
A lot of the music on our new album has to do with reclaiming what has been privatized and corporatized —— which includes seeds. From our public spaces to our water, more and more we see these things being commandeered by the corporate world.
We’ll be heading to India in January for more in-depth work in this field. In India there’s been about 200,000 farmer suicides since 1997. Farmers are going into debt, becoming impoverished and losing their land to the corporate banking structures. The same debt-based economics which are causing people to lose their homes here is causing farmers to lose lands that have been in their families for 800 or 900 years.
We’ll be playing shows in the urban environments and we’ll be bringing the farmers with us into these urban spaces. We’ll also be playing on the farms. Our goal is to try to connect culturally through music and dialogue amongst the people and farmers.
NUVO: You did an artist residency in Chiapas, Mexcio and that inspired a song on your new album?
Marya: That art space has been collaborating with the Zapatista communities and several different indigenous communities to use art as a way to dialogue about autonomy and building new economic models that are serving the communities - as opposed to large corporations or governments. That experience was incredibly inspiring for me.
I wrote the song with a group of kids. They taught me how to say thank you, or "kolabal" in their language Tzotzil. I learned how different the reaction was when I'd go into the marketplace to buy fresh tortillas from the old ladies there. When I'd say kolabal there eyes would light up. It was a totally different response from saying gracias, which is the language of their colonizers.
Learning how to see the power dynamics of language and the power dynamics in the visibility of certain groups. Who is most prominently visible in a culture, who is culturally invisible, or they want to be invisible because of the political structure around them. That balance between visibility and invisibility is a big thing I've been noticing as we travel around the world and here in the U.S. with undocumented immigrants. That song "Weeds" is about those things that are invisible and also the arrogance that is involved in people deciding what is valuable and what is not. If you look at what is traditionally called a weed, it's an incredibly resilient biological species of plant that evolved within an ecosytem. If you go back far enough, you will find that these thing called weeds, which are decidedly pests in our gardens have medicinal properties and have a history with humans.
NUVO: Whatever music tradition you’re working with, your sound is always rooted in a jazzy, folk style. I’m curious what you grew up listening to that provided this foundation?
Marya: My mom was a fan of The Beatles; she also listened to classical music. She was going to be a concert pianist before she had her arranged marriage. She was on her way to the Royal College of Music in England. So I got to listen to her piano. I was inspired by composers like Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich and Bach when I was a kid.
On the other side my father really liked jazz, American folk, classical Punjabi and old Bollywood. So I had this weird sonic environment; everything was really good and really varied. It affected my sense of what music was —— it’s not about containing the spirit within a genre.
NUVO: Any areas of music you’re excited to explore in the future?
Marya: (laughs) Everything! I’ve been listening to calypso records recorded in Trinidad and Tobago in the 1950s; I’m totally in love with that sound. For me, it’s finding song forms that feel invigorating. Recently we’ve been collaborating with an electronic musician who is sort of a sound sculptor. We’ve been messing around with creating abstract sounds and that’s really exciting.
NUVO: You’ve worked extensively as an activist and musician; do you find the arts to be an effective way of engaging and educating the public about social justice issues?
Marya: Art is a fantastic way to invite people to reflect on the world around them and beyond. To elevate our perspective to see farther along than we can when we’re stuck in dialogue and politics, or stuck in how we see things. That’s the beauty and gift of art.
Each edition of A Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe. This week's selection is inspired by the sound of Rupa & the April Fishes and features a mix of vintage, jazzy tunes from around the world.
1. Kishore Kumar - Eena Meena Deeka
2. Lord Kitchener - Trouble
3. Celia Cruz - Al Son Del Pilon
4. Esma Redzepova - Caje Sukarije
5. Los Zafiros - Bossa Cubana
6. Orchestre De La Pailote - Kankan Yarabi
7. Lester Sterling - So Long
8. Salah Ragab - Oriental Mood
9. Girma Beyene - Ene Negn Bay Manesh
10. Panom Nopporn - Sao Ban Pok Pab
11. Lola Martin - Edamise Oh!
12. Rosendo Y Su Banda - Me Voy Pa'la Costa
13. Robert Loison - Jean Fouille, Pie Fouille
14. Black Beats - Telephone Lobi
15. Tito Puente - El Mambo Diablo
16. Mulatu Astatke - I Faram Gami I Faram
17. T.K. Ramamoorthy — Gowla