Physician and singer Rupa Marya is on a mission to break boundaries musically and nationally..
Marco Visscher | Sept/Oct 2009 issue
Rupa Marya felt a sense of pride mixed with disbelief when she learned last year that the album she had just released was the top seller in the world music category on iTunes. A welcome bit of good news during Rupa & the April Fishes‘ first European tour, but a little awkward, too. “World music is brown music presented for white people’s consumption,” Marya says, with a look that makes clear that this is a category with which she has no desire to be associated.
Extraordinary Rendition, the debut album that has continued to sell consistently in America and in some European countries, has been in the iTunes top 100 for more than a year. While the title refers to the transfer of terrorist suspects to countries with less stringent safeguards against human-rights abuses (critics refer to extraordinary rendition as “outsourcing torture”), music reviewers quickly realized this wasn’t a typical collection of political protest songs—yet the same reviewers have struggled with the indefinable character of the sound. The music—a lively combination of melancholic French chansons, exuberant Gypsy swing, alternative Latin, dreamy Indian ragas and soothing avant-garde—can’t easily be pigeonholed. The instrumentation is also eclectic: trumpet, accordion, cello, upright bass, drums and Marya herself on guitar. Plus, Marya sings her richly imaginative lyrics in French, Spanish, English and Hindi.
But musical boundaries aren’t the only thing Marya wants to break through. She’s on a mission to declare national borders superfluous, too. This is the topic of a couple of her songs on her second album Este Mundo, due for release in October. But she’s doing more than singing about it. Marya is launching an art project this fall to make Latin American migrants to the U.S. aware of their rights to health care. (Marya works part-time in a hospital as a physician.) Earlier this year, she and the band traveled to the Mexican border to perform and draw attention to America’s immigration policies, which she believes lead to horrendous personal dramas. “I just can’t believe immigration was not an issue in the presidential elections last year,” she says. “It feels strange to me that there is not a brighter spotlight on it in this day and age.”
Before we step inside her apartment in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco, Marya, 34, apologizes that the place looks a bit like a tornado blew through. She’s packing the second time this year for a European tour. In her living room, which doubles as a rehearsal space for the band, a painting leans against the wall, portraying a bird with outstretched wings flying over the U.S.-Mexico border. Asked what speaks to her about it, she replies, “It captures a simple gesture of freedom of movement that feels more congruent with life than the rigid boundaries we create. It speaks to me of the borders we create in our own minds.”
She herself has been a nomad since birth, thanks to her restless Indian parents. Before she was 12, the family had moved to the foothills of the Himalayas in the north of India, the southern French city of Aix-en-Provence and back to the Bay Area where she was born after her father, an engineer, found a job in Silicon Valley. Since finishing medical school, she has been living in San Francisco, a place she says she feels at home, perhaps because of the cultural diversity that characterizes both her life and that of the city.
We leave the homey chaos for a nearby bistro where—much to the delight of the French waiter—she demonstrates a perfect command of his language. (She later tells me she wants to sing in French and other languages to show that there’s a beauty in things that may sound different.) As we slowly nibble away at our cheese plate, Marya describes the daily impact of the border that lies more than 500 miles to the south.
As a doctor at San Francisco General Hospital, she was often dismayed to see that immigrants, especially those without proper documentation, only go to the doctor when their illness has gotten out of hand. The reason? Fear of deportation. Then one day, one of her patients died of breast cancer. Marya knew it had taken the woman eight months to gather the courage to seek treatment, thinking she had no right to medical care. “Her death sparked a quiet rage and an unstoppable sense of injustice in me,” Marya remembers.
Her aim with ¡Catapulta!, the art project she set up in cooperation with local artists and lawyers, is to educate immigrants in her city—through photographs, film, graffiti, dance and circus acts—about their right to health care. “I want to remind immigrants that they’re not in a hostile environment,” Marya explains. “They came here to work, we appreciate their work and we want to take care of them.”
Marya realizes illegal immigrants are violating American law, but she stresses that society directly benefits from their labor. They pick our vegetables and fruit, prepare our meals in restaurants and clean our homes and streets—work that, she argues, many Americans aren’t willing to perform for such low pay. “What kind of upset would we see if all undocumented people in the U.S. did not come to work for one week?” Marya wonders. “Our economy is fueled by a large labor force that works without getting compensated well, can’t organize in a union and is being denied access to health care. Some people are even afraid to send their children to school. They have no way to speak up for themselves, and this country doesn’t offer them protection for their dignity or human rights.” She even dares to call it “slave labor.”
Marya acknowledges she’s inviting a barrage of criticism with her welcoming stance toward illegal immigrants. “Some people are really upset and angry with me for championing the rights of the people who support and sustain the society we live in,” she says. “But especially in this land of immigrants, we have a moral calling to do better than that. Until we fix a broken system [that causes such economic disparity around the globe], I would hope for respect.”
During her six-day trip along the border, Marya realized once again the lengths to which Mexicans must go to remain under the radar of the border patrol. In Casa del Migrante, a shelter in Tijuana for Latinos sent back during attempts to cross without valid documents, Marya met a 22-year-old man, Roman Tlapa Ortiz, who’d broken his ankle after jumping off a 12-foot wall. He was left behind by a small group of men who’d said they’d stick together until they were safe. “He survived 11 days in the desert on two loaves of bread, walking on his hands and knees, gathering rain water in a plastic bag so he could drink,” Marya recounts. “When I heard his voice, I could hear the terror of what he had experienced, being so close to his mortality and realizing he was only doing this to make $12 an hour instead of $12 a day so he could send money back to his family in Veracruz.”
The meeting with Tlapa was even more touching, Marya says, because it clarified for her the limitations of her work as a doctor. “When I met him, Roman had still not been seen by a physician.” Even now, months later, Marya, recently appointed associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, can’t hide her incredulity. “He was three weeks out of his injury and still he was not going to get an x-ray or surgery, even though he clearly needed medical assistance. He will never walk properly again. To me, it was the greatest feeling of impotence as a doctor—to be there and to feel like I have nothing for this patient. It was a very powerful feeling of powerlessness.”
For years, she’s been ignoring advice to pursue a single career. Marya nods at the thought of it. “What I’m writing about comes from being a doctor,” she explains. “It allows me to not see the separation between Jews and Muslims, or between black and white people, and see life at its most bare level—everyone has the same concerns about matters of life and death. If I were only a musician, where would I feel the sense of intellectual and practical satisfaction? When I go to the hospital and make sure my patients have their medications set up, it brings a certain level of satisfaction that I just don’t feel as a musician, no matter how great the gig is.”
Not all Marya’s songs are about breaking down barriers. Inspired by the life stories of her patients, she sings about love, loss, hope and pain—universal themes, sung from an infectious sort of naïveté. It’s no coincidence “April Fishes” refers to French slang for idealists so caught up in the beauty of the newly arrived spring that they believe the impossible is possible—a wonderful life motto, she thinks.
Marya often finds herself caught up, too, by whatever fuels her passion. “It wasn’t like I wanted to be a border-busting musician visiting shelters for rejected immigrants,” she explains. “But what’s always driven me were the transitional zones, the space where two things rub against each other and smash up.” That’s visible in her medical work, which forces her to deal with issues of life and death, and in her musical work, as she mixes the sounds of countless traditions in an attempt to “build bridges between groups to reflect and give voice to a more complex shared global identity,” she says. “I think we all need to find the space to carve out our own identities, realize who we believe we are and discover our place in the world—literally.”
Read Rupa Marya’s blog posts about the Mexican border tour here.