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The Fisher Queen

Audrey Magazine, News feature, Elisa Mala Posted: Aug 16, 2008

Doctor by day, indie band singer by night doesnt begin to describe Rupa of Rupa and the April Fishes.

queen
Photo by Hilary Hulteen.


World citizen is how Rupa describes herself. If the lead singer of the indie band Rupa and the April Fishes could be reduced to a single pithy statement, that one would be the most apt.

There are other ways to characterize her: Thirty-three years of age. American born. Indian descent, with both parents from the Punjab region. Jet black hair with the type of curls that could be in a shampoo ad. Uninhibitedly friendly. Intellectually curious. Never afraid of a challenge. Doctor. Polyglot. Glockenspiel player. For the purposes of this article, no last name. Id like to keep some separation between my musical life and medical career, she explains.

With one foot in each world, she spends half the year at the University of California, San Francisco as a clinical instructor and internist, teaching and also completing 17 rounds a month that run 12 to 14 hours apiece. The other half of the year involves touring nationally with her eight-member band, making appearances anywhere from music festival South by Southwest to SummerStage in Central Park to underground venues. So when the California-born internist goes on the road, her medical work and her last name are left behind.

Thats Rupa in a very small nutshell, but what are the April Fishes? A joke of sorts, and literally a play on words. In France, April Fools Day is celebrated with poisson dAvril (April fish), paper cutouts resembling gilled creatures that schoolchildren tape to friends backs as a prank. Think of Kick Me signs without the kicking. The idea behind it is the inversion of ones place in society, she says.

Then theres the personal connection. Her birthday is April 28. But her brother, late father, two grandmothers, grandfather and husband were also born that month. Her family is a school of April fish.

And as luck would have it, its April 11 when she performs at Drom in New York City. Among those in the crowd are her longtime friend Neel Doshi, her easygoing and business-savvy manager Simeon Chapin, a middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair who wears an eye patch, and a cast of characters young and old, low-key and sophisticated, that is almost as eclectic as the music.

Really, eclectic is the only way to describe it. For one thing, the 13 tracks on their album, eXtraOrdinary rendition, might be in one of four languages: English, Spanish, French or Hindi. For another, the array of instruments is hardly the most conventional. Accompanied by anything from drums, a cello, an accordion or perhaps a bandoneon (an Argentinian reed instrument), Rupa contributes her mellifluous voice and strumming skills that would make her a pretty considerable Guitar Hero foe. A glockenspiel occasionally enters the picture. The cacophony of musical devices and languages creates a folksy sound that conjures images of French coffee shops, carnivals, perhaps even gypsies dancing by the waterfront.

Theres that idea again: water.

Even in songs that arent titled Mal de Mer (Seasickness) or La Pcheuse (The Fisherwoman), there is a theme of fish and sea. I used to dream of a pirate ship, Rupa writes in the string-heavy Wishful Thinking. In the up-tempo Plus Que Moi (More Than Me), she cheerfully asserts that the river is wiser than me. To hear her reflect on songwriting, which she has been doing since the age of 8, is to realize that this theme is hardly there by chance. Writing is like sitting at the edge of a river, and having the courage to see it and follow it until it takes you where you want to go, she says.

Overtly and obliquely, the album alludes to a fish out of water. Amid the sprightly notes, there are lyrics about physical and emotional discomfort, mistaken identities, frustration and disappointment. An ocean of emotion, not unlike Rupas life.

Her parents arrived in America with $7. She was born in California, but was sent to live with relatives in India at the age of 4, when her parents could no longer afford to support her. She came back to the West Coast about a year later, and then moved to a different country in a different continent France at age 10. Two years later she was back in the States, and has remained here ever since, even though her parents moved to France when she was 18. Her multinational addresses explain the fluency in Hindi and French in high school, she earned a National Laureate in French Language Studies from the Alliance Francaise. Spanish is more of a challenge, but shes not one to shy away from difficulty, linguistic or otherwise.

When asked whether she feels loyalty to one country over another, she responds, I feel at home in San Francisco. She answers expertly, as if shes supplying the most logical answer. But her heart and gut win, and she proffers, I feel like more of a world citizen.

She was also quite comfortable at school, earning a Harvard Book Award and a Scholar With Distinction Award from the College Board in high school. The former requires a high-ranking GPA while the latter requires a minimum average and excellent grades on at least five Advanced Placement exams. At the University of California, San Diego, she earned a bachelor of arts degree and bachelor of science degree with highest distinctions and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

Were a band of nerds! she says with a laugh, delighted at the realization. Indeed, cellist Ed Baskerville, occasionally working from a houseboat in Paris, co-wrote computer code for a program called GridSweeper, which, according to the site, will provide scientists with a straightforward interface for running simulation batches. In English, it means that brain boxes now have a more efficient way of testing theories on complex systems. The company he completed the work for? A little enterprise called Google, according to the band.

But the band itself arose from more melancholy moments. The world is in a lot of pain right now, Rupa says, referring to wars and terrorism. The year 2001 stands out as a particularly difficult one. Her father passed away in the south of France, where her mother currently resides. When the attacks on the World Trade Center occurred, Rupa says she felt that the world was coming to an end.

But death and destruction also brought forth hope and renewal: Her father, who she says was an electrical engineer and spoke 13 languages, encouraged her to persevere. He would say, Rupa, you must make sure that you are always hard-working, and you must always have a dream.

Less than a year later, she graduated from Georgetown Medical School with honors.

Entrenched in a profession where precision is a way of life and milligrams and centimeters can mean the difference between miracles and tragedy, Rupa maintains her free spirit and creativity. I like the nebulous aspects of internal medicine, she says, adding that being a musician makes me a better doctor. For Rupa, the river runs both ways, with the creative career leaving an indelible mark on the scientific one. Time on the road gives her the opportunity to decompress, and accumulating unusual experiences allows her to better empathize with patients.

With a smattering of influences and languages, her identity comes from nowhere and everywhere. But on stage, no matter where, she is neither here nor there: she is in her element. Whether serenading a crowd with a French ballad or hopping around to a raucous English number, she fills the room with an energy as unique as her background. No longer an April fish clinging to the back of a place where it doesnt quite fit in, she is more like a salmon swimming upstream. Each year, they return to their exact place of birth to lay eggs and continue the circle of life. Relying on nothing but instincts, memory and an arbitrary place to call home, they, like Rupa, are confident, assured and left with no doubts as to where to go.

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