Catalina Maria Johnson

International radio broadcaster, bilingual cultural journalist, music curator


“I started composing in different languages because it seemed to be time to speak to a varied audience. We are always presented with the idea of a monolithic culture … the history of any area is untold with any depth in this country. We can hardly keep the last ten, fifty or at the very most one hundred years in our cultural imagination,” exclaims Rupa Marya, guitarist and lead vocalist/songwriter of the band Rupa and the April Fishes, speaking by phone from her Bay Area base.

Living with a profound awareness of a multitude of cultures and languages came naturally to Marya. Born in the U.S. to Indian parents, she grew up not just in the Bay Area, but India and Southern France as well.  Marya is distinctive in another way – she may have one of the most unusual day gigs for a successful musician, as she is also a faculty member in Internal Medicine at the University of California San Francisco.

Healing through music and healing through medicine are really complementary arts, she says.  On the one hand, the band has become well-known and loved for a distinctive sound that evokes many parts of the world, such as French chanson, Colombian cumbia, Gypsy Jazz and American Folk.  As Marya describes it, “I wanted to create sounds that would take people to contact each other, see each other, recognize each other and hear each other.”

However, despite raucous live performances where much dancing abounds, a close listen to their exuberant beats reveals that Marya’s compositions are mindful of the message as well as the music. Yet she passionately rejects the notion of activism as some kind of accoutrement to a professional career: “I think of myself not as an ‘activist’, but someone who is ‘activated.’ Here we are, participating in how many wars? To respond to this, everyone has to get active in the dialogue of how we are going to govern ourselves.”

She continues to describe with great conviction what she considers the role of every person in the society: “We are living in very dangerous times. People are being harmed, kicked out of their homes, displaced. It has gotten to be an emergency. We need to be able to speak to these things as intelligent, educated, active, engaged members of a civil society, otherwise we don’t have actual true democracy. Everyone needs to get activated, right now!”

And her music will always be a part of this, she affirms, telling the story of a recent artistic residency working with Zapatista communities in Chiapas, Mexico. The children she was working with taught her to say “thank you” and “you’re welcome” in Tzotzil. When she included these words in a sing-along with the children in one of the concerts the band gave in the area, she comments on how proud and happy the children seemed when hearing the Mexican audience (who speak Spanish, the language of the colonizer) participate in a call-and-response with them, singing the Mayan words.

That song with Tzotzil words will of course, be included in the band’s third album, which Marya has taken a sabbatical from her medical duties to be able to record. She comments quietly: “I realized in Chiapas that my life has been all about learning to do what is not spoken, and making seen what is not visible.”

Rupa and the April Fishes will perform at the Mayne Stage on April 14.

Check Catalina’s blog and the archives of Beat Latino  (like Beat Latino on FB too!) to explore the roots as well as trends in Latin musical arts.

Comments are closed.