Arts, Culture & Media

Global Hit: Rupa

Zoe Corneli introduces us to Rupa, a San Francisco doctor who is also a musician. Rupa not only reflects musical styles from all over the world in her work, she also infuses it with her comments on global politics.

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"Rupa and the April Fishes" is a group that crosses borders -- between countries, languages, musical styles, and even professions. When she's not making music, lead singer Rupa spends her time making diagnoses. The San Francisco doctor, whose parents are from India, grew up in several countries. As Zoe Corneli of station KALW in San Francisco reports -- art, medicine and global politics merge in Rupa's music.

The group's new CD is called "eXtraOrdinary rendition"... which is also the name of the alleged U.S. government practice of sending terror suspects to countries that allow harsh interrogation tactics. It might seem like an oddly political title for a disc full of sweet melodies. But band leader Rupa says that's sort of the point.

"I actually wanted people to Google the expression, and then read, oh the first thing that comes up is a Wikipedia article, you know, not an album."

"I wanted it to be a way to wake people up, and that's why the album starts with a siren, it's just like, we are living in a dangerous time."

This siren blares every week in San Francisco, to test the warning system. The album's roots are firmly planted in this city, but its branches span the globe. Accordion you might hear on the streets of Paris meets trumpet from a Mexican mariachi band� along with timely messages.

This song is called Poder. In Spanish, that means both "Power" and "to be able to." The lyrics list things that can enter the U.S. from Mexico, followed by one thing that can't.

"It starts with the fish, the wind, even money can, a song, love, even a kiss can, but I can't."

Rupa says this song was inspired by photographs of different things crossing the border: a seagull, some seaweed, and an ice cream cone being handed to a U.S. border patrol agent by a salesman on the Tijuana side.

"So the idea that we can just draw a line in the sand, and then control what can go across and what can't, and the one thing that can't go freely are people, seems so counterintuitive and unnatural."

Rupa goes by Doctor Marya at the teaching hospital where she works as an internist. She says her experience treating patients - many of whom are undocumented Latino immigrants - reinforces her sense that we're all the same.

"When I go from bedside to bedside, and everyone's got their mothers, and everyone's got their desire to have a home, everyone's got, you know, a liver, everyone bleeds. Like all these things, it just contradicts my experience when someone just puts a wall and says, you're that over there, and I'm here over here."

Rupa's own life has been a story of breaking down borders. The petite 30-something was born in San Francisco and raised in India and France. She refuses to fit into a single identity. She says music and medicine come naturally to her, and long ago she decided to do both.

"I've had a hard time, as a child, people would always say, what are you doing, are you this or are you that? And I was like, how can I decide, how can you call one thing a hobby when it feels like what my mind just does."

The song "Wishful Thinking" was inspired by one of her patients and his wife. They'd been married 40 years and the man was about to die.

Now I don't know when the tides will call me away from this sweet life with you, and I wish that I could stay forever, even though since I was young I knew there was never such a thing, but this wishful thinking keeps our stories rising while our lives are sinking, and in time I will kiss you goodbye�

This is one of the album's few songs in English. Most of them are in French, and many are about relationships...which Rupa says is a political commentary in its own way: it's a response to her anger over the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

"Like there's so much fear right now, I need to start writing songs about love, and not romantic love, necessarily, but almost love as a way of knowing oneself, and love in a time of deep uncertainty and deep fear, reminding myself, and reminding other people to just stay hopeful, and stay compassionate."

So she decided to write ten songs about love - in French. It's the language she's most comfortable with, besides English.

One of them was "Une Americaine � Paris," an American in Paris. It's about the artificial barriers that divide people.

"I was in Paris for about a week, playing music and writing music, by myself, and I had spent two days, writing, writing, writing, I didn't talk to anybody, I was just sitting by myself."

Y avait quelques jours en silence, j'ai pas dit un mot�

The song begins, 'There were a few silent days, I didn't say a word.'

"And I was in a cafe, and this man came and sat next to me, and he's like, are you writing a novel, and I said, no I'm writing songs, and we had this wonderful conversation, oh what kind of music do you like, oh what kind of film do you like, and we kept going back and forth, it was such a wonderful warm conversation, until I asked him where he was from. And he said he was from Algeria. And he says where are you from, and I said, I'm from San Francisco."

Tu n'as pas peur d''tre ici � Paris, avec tous ces Arabes f�ches?...

"It was just this wall came down between us, and he said, well aren't you afraid to be an American in Paris with all these angry Arabs. If you were in my neighborhood, cwwkk, and he made the beheading motion. And a part of me was like, who is this man, I am afraid. But then I just looked at him, and I was like, no I'm not afraid, I think there's too much of that right now."

Je ne suis pas americaine, tu n'es pas arabe et nous ne sommes pas � Paris, nous sommes dans la vie...

Rupa translates:

"I'm not an American, you're not an Arab, we're not in Paris, we're in life."

Lai lai lai, lai lai lai, un monde fou entre nous�

For the World, I'm Zoe Corneli in San Francisco.

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