Rupa Marya: A songwriter at the cusp of life and death

Rupa
Rupa Marya: plays the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley on Wednesday Sept. 9, 2015

Rupa Marya has long been acutely sensitive to issues of life and death. Though she no longer works on the ICU at UC San Francisco, where she’s a doctor on staff, she has spent a lot of time with families and patients in their final days. On stage, she’s married her passion for progressive activism to a global array of styles as the leader of the Rupa and the April Fishes, a high-energy acoustic band that has earned an international following with a series of multi-lingual albums.

These days however, Rupa’s musical and personal focus has shifted decidedly inward. Since giving birth to her son Bija in September of 2013, she’s recalibrated her sound to harmonize with her changing consciousness, a transformation wrought by bringing a new life into the world and nurturing him. Her remarkable new album Oval , which surrounds her voice with a silken skein of strings, reflects her new state of mind, and she’s celebrating the CD’s release Wednesday at Freight & Salvage.

“I’ve been so outwardly focused the last decade in music and medicine, the impact of having a baby came as a complete shock,” Rupa says. “It’s a very humbling, non-cognitive experience. It’s given a lot more empathy for my patients, the experience of things happening to your body and where that takes you. It’s like a new limb you never knew you had.”

Her first album sans April Fishes, Oval brings together an extraordinary cast of artists. Co-produced by bassist Todd Sickafoose with arrangements by Tin Hat guitarist Mark Orton, who’s best known these days for his scores for the films Nebraska , Sweet Land , and The Good Girl , the album features violinist Jeremy Cohen’s Quartet San Francisco.


Her contemplative state hasn’t led to a burst of songwriting, but it has inspired her reimagining some of her most beautiful songs, particularly the pieces she wrote in French for her 2008 April Fishes debut Extraordinary Rendition and the 2009 followup Este Mundo (both on Cumbancha).

For Wednesday’s concert, she’ll be joined by half of Quartet San Francisco (violinist Matt Szemela and violist Chad Kaltinger), longtime April Fishes cellist Misha Khalikulov, and violinist Stephanie Bibbo. Album contributors Rob Reich (accordion) and Jhno (piano, duduk, electric viola) will also be on hand, with drummer Andy Borger and bassist Daniel Fabricant rounding out the ensemble.

“I love the wild punkish energy of the April Fishes and the indie nature of what we’ve been doing, playing large festival stages with this rock energy,” Rupa says. “That’s been really fun and fulfilling. Working with Mark Orton on these arrangements has been a way to create a more restricted space, so the songs would go to other places.”

In many ways, Oval completes a cycle that started with the death of Rupa’s father, a loss that left her unable to play or write music for a year. After a long period of musical silence, she started writing music in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks as a way to envision an alternative to the impending invasion of Iraq.

“I couldn’t pick up my guitar,” Marya says. “It was too painful. But then I started to think about what would it be like to create music that reflected what I wanted to see in the world, to give a voice to the things that weren’t getting any airtime. I started with an assignment to write 10 songs about love, compassion, and uncertainty in a time of love across borders.”


Born in San Francisco to Punjabi Indian parents and raised for several years in the south of France, she decided to write most of her new songs in French, with some Spanish, English, and Hindi thrown in for good measure. She already had the border-crossing sound in mind when she started assembling a band from the Bay Area’s polyglot music scene.

For years she expanded her purview an artist and activist, creating a vast web of confederates on and off the bandstand. No project better captures the diverse nature of her musical associations than her stint as a guest producer for the UnderCover Presents production of Bob Marley’s classic 1977 album Exodus , which premiered last April at The Independent. That was a rare Rupa sighting, though the release of Oval marks her reemergence on the scene.

“It’s an exciting, very intimate way to dive into music again,” she says. “These are songs that reflect more of my personal heart more than world heart. There are so many beautiful things about becoming a mother. My focus has turned very inward very home oriented. You’re not just giving birth to a person, you’re giving birth to a new formation of yourself, and I’m still figuring out where that goes.”

Recommended gig: Linda Tillery at Freight & Salvage

Linda Tilllery
Linda Tilllery

Calling Linda Tillery a Bay Area treasure doesn’t quite do justice to her role as a teacher, historian, performer and all-‘round guiding spirit. She celebrates her birthday Friday at Freight & Salvage with an all-star band including pianist Tammy Hall, bassist Ruth Davies, and drummer Leon Joyce Jr. In typical Tilleryian fashion, she’ll be covering a lot of ground, from pre-World War II country blues to songs by Marvin Gaye, Gil Scott-Heron, Richie Havens, Donny Hathaway, Nina Simone, and the Staples Singers.

Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.


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