If music from countries outside North America and England is considered world music, and music by people from English speaking North America is considered popular music, what would you call music performed by a band whose lead singer was born in the States to parents originally from the Punjab region of North India, who moved to the South of France when she was ten, and now lives in San Francisco?
In an industry where an entire band can have been born and bred on the streets of Brooklyn, and still be referred to as world music, I guess the answer is obvious, but it does beg the question – Which "world" are they talking about?
The one Rupa, the lead singer of Rupa & The April Fishes, was born into in San Francisco, the world her parents left behind in the Punjab, or the new world they all discovered in Aix-En-Provence in southern France? With the majority of the songs on their first release, ExtraOrdinary Rendition on the Cumbancha label, being sung in French, the answer seems obvious, yet there's a lot more going on here then what first meets the ear.
It's true that some of the songs contain elements that are associated with French music; the drawn out sound of the accordion, a slightly melancholy air, and a passionate vocalist. Since the days of Edith Piaff, these have been hallmarks of French chancon style of performance, but that's only one of the elements that have gone into the music you hear on ExtraOrdinary Rendition. There's Latin beats mixing with the swing of a gypsy violin while a guitar strums in a style reminiscent of American folk, and a cello dances in the background.
Now there are plenty of bands that combine elements from various styles of music to give their music a transcontinental flavour, but there is something about what Rupa & The April Fishes does that distinguishes their music from others who attempt something similar. It's not obvious at first, but gradually you realize there is a sensibility at work in this music that's not prevalent in others. Others who I've heard combine musical styles seem compelled to attack with their music, as if the only way they can succeed is by breaking down any barriers an audience might have preventing them from accepting it.
Rupa & The Fishes have taken another approach. While some of their music is every bit as high tempo as other bands, there is also a subtlety about it that makes it feel less like a direct assault upon your senses and more like a gradual seduction. With the majority of the lyrics being sung in French, those of us with limited language skills are forced to rely upon the music and the sound of Rupa's voice, the lead vocalist, for our clues as to the nature of each song. However listening to the songs, one gets the feeling that the band has taken that into account. The compositions are such that the sounds of the instruments and Rupa's voice work together to create an overall emotional landscape that tells us enough about each song's nature we can appreciate them without understanding the lyrics.
Of course it doesn't hurt that the band members seem to have a innate ability to express themselves with their instruments as if they were singing. In some ways, this even gives them an advantage over groups that sing in a language listeners are familiar with, as they don't have to worry about a song's lyrics being taken literally. As an audience member, I know that I will automatically let my feelings be dictated by the meanings I give to the words I hear a band sing no matter what subtext the music might be supplying. Here, where the vocals are merely another instrument generating sound, we are forced to listen to all the nuances that the music generates in order to try and understand what a song is about.
In fact, when you read the translations of the lyrics that are provided with the disc, you realize it wouldn't matter too much even if you spoke French fluently, as they are more like abstract poetry than the song lyrics most of us are accustomed to. Like the music, they are a series of thoughts and images that work together to create an overall all impression that the listener will carry away with them. Take track three for example, "Poder", which translates as "Power", and the way the lyrics sound. "the fish can / the wind can / even money / but not me / the song can / love can / even a little kiss can / but not me."
The lyrics, which incidentally are sung in Spanish, are accompanied by an upbeat, latin influenced, rhythm that seems to be offering a challenge to whoever Rupa is addressing with the song. You think you know what power is, but can any of us know what power is? All of these things, the items she lists in the song's lyrics, they have power, but we don't. Without understanding the lyrics of the song it sounds like she is being defiant, either daring somebody to do something or dismissing their authority over her. The expression in her voice and the challenge offered by the music exemplify the scorn the song's lyrics express about people's ideas of power, and the desire to hold power over other people.
Rupa lives in San Francisco and sings in French, Spanish, and English, in a band whose musical influences are from nearly every part of the globe. For a change this is a band whose sound you can call world music without it being a misnomer as they represent the sounds of more than just one country. Yet what makes them truly world oriented is that it doesn't matter whether or not you understand the language they sing in, because you can still understand what their music is about. Like true citizens of the world their music speaks to all of us and is in a language that all can understand.