Backstage with Rupa and the April Fishes: Building Optimism through Music
I’m still reverberating from an epic opening night yesterday at ARMA’s One World Music stage. It was a veritable feast of music firsts for me; first time
for seeing the other-worldly throttle of traditional Mongolian throat singing by Ajinai, first time for seeing an amp-d up shopping cart played as
a musical instrument courtesy of the audiovisual-dub-electronic stylings of Fillastine; and it was also the first time I was seeing headlining Rupa
& the April Fishes, a band that brings such incredible breath and depth with a message to their music–and also happens to be based out of this
author’s hometown, San Francisco.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with ringleader Rupa (vocals, guitar), Aaron (percussion), Mario (trumpet), Mischa (cello) and JHNO (keyboards,
viola, duduk) before last night’s set.
Me: How would you define your
sound in your own words, and what have been some of the biggest influences on the band?
Mario: Hmm, Rage Against the Machine, Buena Vista Social Club, Duke Ellington, experimental electronic…
Me: Those are pretty interesting influences from rather disparate genres, how do these come together in the unique sound of Rupa &
the April Fishes?
Aaron: We all come from different backgrounds and have studied music from all over the world, but I don’t feel like anyone is particularly
attached to one traditional style. I think we take roots music from all over the world whether it’s French chanson or Eastern European gypsy music
and we blend it together, respecting the traditions but doing something different using it as a springboard to do our own take on those styles.
So it’s very original sound using familiar styles that remind people of their own tradition but reflects the global world we live in.
Rupa: I think the world, our perspective maybe since post-WWII, has become very focused on the politics of identity, and what is beautiful
and enjoyable about making music together for all of us is that there is a perspective of where we come from but there’s also a joy and experimention
with the sense of who we are, which is beyond a sense of nation or particular heritage. We’re profoundly connected to each other through sound
and human-ness more than anything else. So for me it’s that overreaching sense coming from many different kinds of sounds to create a cohesive
sense of self that’s beyond any provinical ideal of identity.
Me: You talk about the development of our political and cultural reality over recent times, how might your perspective on these issues
be reflected in your music? Is there a common theme or message that is woven into your music, and your latest album, BUILD, in particular?
Rupa: Yeah, our work as artists is to really confront the sense of social demoralization which we’ve witnessed in the world. We’ve
been traveling a lot in the last 5-6 years being in different kinds of situations and societies where you can really see the disparities between
who has advantage and who doesn’t have advantage and how that’s split along socioeconomic lines, racial lines, gender lines, and that sort of perpetual
sense of demoralization that groups confront. You can couch it in many different terms but the effect of the music I feel–the goal, the aim of
the music, is to really push back at that with a deeper optimism in humanity that doesn’t really fit in our market-oriented capitalist society.
Me: Does that address the audience that perhaps your trying to appeal to or connect together with your music?
Misha: Living beings? (smiles)
Rupa: Awake and unawake? There are people at various states. Sometimes we’ll play to people who you’d never think would come and listen
to your music, and they’re really surprised and go “oh, I really felt the energy or I felt the groove, that was cool.” Something will catch somebody
or maybe they’ll just totally hate it. But if something catches someone’s ear, it invites them in. I don’t think we have a particular demographic
and I think that’s what’s hard for the music industry. They don’t know how to package it. But I like the idea of living human beings.
Misha: Even animals.
Me: Animals love music. They communicate on an energy level obviously. We do too though a lot of us aren’t as aware of it. That’s
why we need to do more yoga. (laughs) So tell me about your creative process.
Mischa: Well Rupa is our songwriter. She’s the one who has to sing the lyrics so she wants to be able to stand behind them.
Rupa: Not all of them. Aaron has written some lyrics too.
Mischa: That’s right. But Rupa’s the primary writer. She comes up with the chords on the guitar and gets a general idea of a rhythmic
groove she wants. And then we just kind of workshop it from there. We come in with our various ideas and there may be a free instrumental section
where we decide that a trumpet solo or a cello solo can go there. As far as the verse goes, it’s always attempting to complement the voice a little
bit. We’re all trying to create complementary voices hopefully in service to the song and of the overarching lyrical content.
Rupa: It also feels like the creative process is changing. The process in our last album was very different than the two previous
ones. There was way more unknown when we went into the studio last time and I wanted it to be that way. There was less mapped out in my mind.
Me: How did you decide it was going to be in English for your latest album?
Rupa: I just wrote the songs in English.
Me: So was there any rhyme or reason for why the first album was largely in French and the second in Spanish?
Rupa: The first one started with a lesson, a commitment to myself to write ten songs about love in French because I’d never written
about love and I thought that it was odd that I’d never done that. And I chose French because I wanted to learn how to separate my ear linguistically
from what was happening musically and it was an interesting experiment in sound and language. I started with ten songs and then it became thirty
songs–I just kept writing in French.
And then the next album took us down to Tijuana, while becoming more familiar with the dynamics of San Francisco, especially in the Mission District
where I was working and living. So the first album was more planned but the others were driven by what was going on and what we were feeling at
Me: So this is everyone’s first time in Bali–it must be cool to experience the island for the first time as a band and be able to
play here together. What are you most excited about in being part of the BaliSpirit Festival and being able to share your music with this crowd?
Aaron: We did the kecak dance a couple days ago and it was great to be officially allowed to act like monkeys and be musical about
it. We all had a blast doing it. It was so much fun and we learned a lot about rhythm and music and group-think. That was my favorite part so far.
JHNO: I think there’s something about music around yoga culture or the idea around a world music band being interpreted as being pretty
bland because all the different traditions get watered down. I think our band will bring a lot more energy and social consciousness to it, more
of a message. People who are getting into yoga can sometimes find themselves in a bit of a bliss bubble placated by a poster that proceeds are
going to go to a local project and think “oh then I’ve done my job.” I think the music from our band is totally engaging and hopefully will maybe
push people a little bit to open their minds to what’s happening around them and not just stay in their bliss bubble.
Rupa: It’s like how do you define the role of a teacher. Is your role as a teacher to go to a school and transmit information and
then go home? Or is your role to go to school and get involved with some people’s lives and then go home and get involved with other people’s lives
and you’re actually involved in the act of learning and teaching and dialoguing in everything that you do. Like how do we define our roles? It’s
not defined by how we make our money but that’s how it’s been. Our work has been commodified and turned into something that’s very cheap. And I
think it divorces people from a real sense of meaning in their lives. To me, to be a musician is to rattle people’s cages of humanity’s soul to
experience joy and presence and alertness about what’s happening right now so we can respond in a compassionate and intelligent way. If I’m not
doing that, I’m not doing my job, my work.
So that’s what I hope our music will do, shake people to go what am I doing with my time, am I really doing it? If I’m a writer, what am I writing?
If I’m a computer programmer, what am I programming? But people get very trapped into “I’m making money,” and it’s like, so what? Who gives a rat’s
ass…it’s not the most important thing when we’re living in a world where so many people are really struggling and how can we contribute
to an awakening. And that’s what’s cool about this Festival. I feel people are coming here have an intention for that consciousness. Sometimes
it gets sidetracked or sometimes it can feel like you’re in a bliss bubble, but it’s exciting to be able to rattle some people with an already
Aaron, Mischa and Mario are all teachers of music. Lately, Aaron has been teaching some very young kids and I’ve been assisting him. It’s been really
great to go into a classroom and watch him do his thing because it’s brings such foundational support to our message. It’s shows the extension
of what music is–it’s not just performing…
Me: …it’s living the
Rupa: Yeah, exactly.
Me: One final question, since this is a yoga and music festival. Personally, I see a great connection between yoga and music. In fact,
I find it challenging to do yoga without music. For me, yoga is music and music is yoga in a way. Are you guys yogis, and if so, what’s your favorite
Rupa: I knew you were going to ask that! (laughs) I do practice. I started doing yoga when I was a little kid. When my friends would
go to church I would go to a an Indian cultural thing where I learned how to be a good little Indian girl. I picked it up more seriously when I
was in graduate school. My favorite pose these days would be…pigeon.
Me: Hip opener. Yeah, that’s really important for women. We hold so much emotion in our hips.
Aaron: I go in and out of practicing. I’ve been practicing for a little over two years. I started off really undisciplined about it
and only able to do it in a class. And then I started doing it more regularly and then found that through muscle memory I could go through the
poses on my own. I don’t always like to have to go to a class. I feel like it can be more meditative when you’re by yourself and even not having
music sometimes–just having to sit with your own thoughts in your head. But the music really helps to focus your mind and zone out.
Me: What’s your favorite pose?
Aaron: I don’t think I have one. I know what I don’t like.
JHNO: The hard ones.
Rupa: Like what?
Aaron: (places right elbow under left, arms in front of his face)
Aaron: It constricts my chest.
Me: It’s a shoulder and upper back opener.
Aaron: Maybe there’s a reason why I don’t like it. Maybe I’m holding something in my shoulders.
Me: Sometimes the more you don’t like something, the more you should maybe explore it. (smiling) Just to see why.
Aaron: Yeah, definitely.
Mario: I don’t really practice yoga but 6-7 years ago I did get into breath of fire for trumpet technique. So I like to teach it to
students who are building tension in their neck or in their chest or shoulders when they’re blowing into the trumpet, to get them to take a deeper
breath and do it quickly so they’re not building up tension.
Mischa: I don’t practice yoga either but it’s similar to what Mario said. I actually work with a number of my cello students with
their breathing. Even though they’re not using their breath to produce the sound of the instrument, they’ll often be so constricted in their breathing
while playing. The thing is a lot of things we do connect our breathing with our emotion. We need to get these things to be a little more independent
because a lot of people struggle so much with emotion so immediately they start struggling with their breathing. And at the end of a short little
beginners piece, they’ll be winded or lightheaded or full of tension, so I work with them on their breathing while they play.
Me: And that’s the core of yoga right there.
JHNO: For musicians, it’s all a balancing act. With strings like when you’re playing the viola or violin, when you’re standing up
you need to be really connected to the ground with your body in a stack, the same kind of solidity of posture that’s practiced in yoga.
Rupa: It’s funny watching Aaron do yoga, because he’s been doing it a lot on the road, and it’s very similar to watching Aaron play
the drums. He has this fluidity with his arms when he’s playing drums, and he has that same fluidity when you watch him do yoga.
Aaron: I sweat just as much. (laughs)
Me: That means you’re doing it right. (laughs) Anything you guys want to add?
Rupa: We’re really grateful to be here. Such a great way to come to Bali!
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Written by : Melanie de Leon