Citizen of the world
Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Rupa & the April Fishes create music that defies easy categorization. Their debut album, eXtraOrdinary rendition, echoes with influences of French chanson, Argentinean tango, Gypsy swing, American folk, Latin cumbias, and even Indian ragas. Their raucous and inviting performances have earned them a wide following in San Francisco, and they are poised for international renown with the worldwide release of their album in April, 2008.
Rupa & the April Fishes is led by a young woman of Indian heritage whose nomadic upbringing and dual life as a musician and doctor has led her to explore issues of identity, borders, and the vagaries of life, love and death. Rupa's mother and father were originally from the Punjab region of northern India. They moved to the United States in the early 1970s, settling in the Bay Area, where Rupa was born.
When Rupa was four years old, her parents were struggling financially and sent her and her older brother back to India to live with Rupa's grandparents until they could get their feet back on the ground. Even though she looked like everyone else in her Indian elementary school, for the first time, Rupa was aware that she her American upbringing and lack of facility with the Hindi language made very different from her classmates. It was the first of many moments in her life when Rupa began thinking about issues of race and identity.
Rupa's parents fell in love with southern France and moved to Aix-En-Provence when Rupa was ten years old. One of the few people of Indian descent in an area with a large Arab immigrant population, Rupa was immediately aware that the color of her skin led people to make judgments about her before she even opened her mouth. "I remember being going into town with one of the ladies from my school" recalls Rupa, "and she said, 'Don't worry, I'm going to introduce you as Indian ... otherwise they're going to think you're an Arab,' as if that was a horrible thing. I remember being ten years old and always very aware of race and how people perceived me, and how I perceived myself. Living in the south of France, people always assumed that I was either Roma (Gypsy), or Arab. And so I was always very aware of how people treated my shade of brown, and how I was developing my own concept of identity."
While Rupa began playing music when she was eight years old, she was also naturally adept at science. "When I was in second grade, my teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said 'A surgeon and a ballerina.' Growing up, I always struggled with trying to figure out what I was supposed to do, music or medicine." She decided to pursue a career in medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, while simultaneously playing music with friends in local clubs and cafes. Now a physician and teacher of medicine working in a hospital in San Francisco, Rupa has worked out a unique arrangement that allows her to divide her time between her passion for music and the creative arts with being a doctor.
While she first started by playing straightforward singer-songwriter material in English, Rupa was beginning to forge a new sound that was more representative of her complex identity, which she describes as a "mosaic". Rupa began writing in French, which she saw as "a way to separate myself melodically and rhythmically from the literal meaning of language. I wanted to learn to use language as paint strokes, instead of actual literal words all the time. So I said to myself, 'what if I wrote in French as a way to explore music through the sound of the words, and the melody inherent in the language. And see how that changes my writing.' And it ended up allowing for a lot more immediate connection to the emotional intensity of what I was trying to convey. It was music that was trying to explore what it meant to me to be who I was growing up in all these different places with all these amazing stories and this family who dragged me all over the world. It's trying to give voice to those beautiful things that came through my heritage."
Rupa began playing solo in cafes until she joined up with cellist Ed Baskerville to form a duet. They played on the streets, in streetcars, art galleries, and other informal settings, "just as a way of getting myself comfortable with the street nature of the music I was writing, and how I wanted to communicate to people. My goal was even though I was writing in French I wanted people to understand it and to feel it. And that was sort of the surprise of this music, how accessible it was to people." Eventually, the band grew to include a rotating roster of some of the Bay Area's most talented young musicians. The name the April Fishes was inspired by the French term les poissons d'avril, which is related to the English term April Fools. In France on the first of April, people stick little paper fishes on unsuspecting people's backs. "The origin of that is disputed, Rupa explains, "but one of the stories is that when a French king changed to the Roman calendar from the pagan calendar that was in wide use at the time some people who still wanted to celebrate the New Year in April.
So these are the people who would give the fishes, the April fish, to celebrate the beginning of the New Year. We were feeling like April fishes-- people who don't believe the reality that's handed to them by some higher order, people who continue to insist on their own reality. It's a political and social commentary." Eventually, the band's following grew, and they moved from playing small settings to performing in front of sell-out crowds at some of San Francisco's most popular concert venues. Their concerts have earned renown for their circus-like atmosphere at times featuring stilt-walkers, live painting and performance artists that channels a modern-day Moulin Rouge.
With its polyglot influences, the music of Rupa & the April Fishes reflects Rupa's interest in the arbitrary nature of borders and how they artificially create differences and divisions between people who are at core the same. The result reflects her hope for the future, a world with dissolving borders, where the essential humanness of any person or group can be heard or seen before labels and dividing lines are drawn. Rupa's music is a pastiche of sounds and impressions--undeniably full of heart--with subject matters ranging from love and loss in a time of uncertainty to stories of people in transition.
"Extraordinary rendition" is the euphemism to define our times, an example of the horrific language play that pushed me to start writing in several languages in an attempt to show that what is true is communicated between the syllables, under the words. "Extraordinary rendition" is the term used by the US government to describe the practice of moving folks in captive to other nations where torture is allowed in order to interrogate them with impunity.
We must shed a bright light in the dark places in order that things can get better.
Paz y Amor
The members of Rupa & the April Fishes are:
Ed Baskerville (cello)
began playing the cello at the age of seven but didn't fall in love with music until high school, after being exposed to the chamber music of Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and Shostakovich. He eventually completed a quarter of a Bachelor's degree, and half of a Master's degree, in cello performance. As a member of the Fishes, Ed brings his classical chamber music roots and quirky improvisational intuitions into the musico-linguistic stew generated by his fellow players. On Sunday nights, he can often be found at the Revolution Café sight-reading chamber music in public. When not with the Fishes, Ed engages in other, nerdier, pursuits.
Marcus Cohen (trumpet)
AKA "the tone" has resurrected himself as a "realtime" musician after a 10-year hiatus. During his dormant stage of trumpet playing, he spent several years as a producer, mostly producing "nujazz, trip hop, and a touch of neo soul". His playing style derives from primarily a jazz background. Aside from being a musician, Marcus works fulltime as a senior stylist in downtown San Francisco, as well as managing styling emergencies on the road. Marcus was born at Scott Air force base in Granite City, Illinois and grew up mostly in the cities of St Louis and Philadelphia. While living in Philadelphia, Marcus attended a magnet school for music and academics. This is where he began his trumpet adventures. Moving to San Francisco three years ago, he met many amazing musicians in the Mission District including Marcus Shelby and his Fish bandmates. Heavily drawn to the world of fusion music, instrumentation and arrangements of this project, he is at heart a true April Fish.
Isabel Douglass (accordion)
Isabel Douglass performs on accordion in a variety of styles including tango, French musette, Balkan dance styles, klezmer, early jazz, and experimental music. Isabel has worked with a variety of Bay Area ensembles, including Tango No. 9, The Japonize Elephants, Eric McFadden, Amaldecor, Kugelplex, and Faun Fables. Recent dance and theater groups she has collaborated with are Dandelion Dance Theater, Roccoco Risque, Yuko Kaseki, and Tango Confusion.
Aaron Kierbel (drums)
enjoys finding music in everyday objects, such as old-fashioned egg-beaters and typewriters and incorporating them into his traditional drum set. This has earned him the title of "contraptionist" in the band. His playing is intuitive, listening and responding to other musicians with creativity and nuance. Aaron likes to play with wild abandon and a sense of humor. He especially likes playing for kids and animals because they encourage these tendencies. By far the most inventive and melodic drummer in San Francisco, Aaron plays with a variety of groups including Charming Hostess, Cotton Candy Cabaret and Kugelplex. He is currently learning the accordion and plans to take up the sousaphone and the tabla.
Safa Shokrai (upright bass) began playing music at the age of 9. Starting out on cello, he soon decided that rock/jazz stardom was for him and switched to the upright bass. After studying under several bassists including the great Ray Brown, Marcus Shelby, and Jeff Chambers, Safa focused on leading his own bands and composing. Safa has performed in a wide variety of shows and bands, including the much-heralded play by Tim Barsky The Bright River, Tin Cup Serenade, Iron & The Albatross, and the Blue Roots. He has also composed music for his own projects as well as the short film Marcou and the feature-length documentary He has also composed music for his own projects as well as the short film Marcou and the feature-length documentary Xavier Viramontes: Printmaker. Safa is currently working on compositions for a children's read-along CD, playing in several bands, and planning his wedding.
Pawel Walerowski (cello)
is originally from Poland. He was formally trained in his native country and graduated from the Conservatory in Poznan in Cello Performance. During his formative years, he played in various ensembles, touring Europe, served as the principle cellist in Jeuesse Musicales Youth String Orchestra in Slovenia and recorded for radio and television. Pawel came to the United States on a scholarship to the University of Arizona and subsequently toured the Americas on a boat before winds blew him to the San Francisco Bay Area. He has quickly become part of the bohemian Bay Area music scene while developing his unique style of playing cello and singing. Pawel plays a beautiful, one of a kind avant-garde cello made in Tatra Mountains by a prominent Polish luthier Stanislaw Mardula
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