In the 1930s Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the plight of the Mexican migrant workers who picked fruit and vegetables in California. "Deportees" detailed how these workers were treated little better than slaves and their status as illegal workers exploited by the folk who hired them. As long as there was fruit that needed picking they were allowed to stay, but the second there was no work – presto they became deportees – illegal immigrants – to be shipped back where they came from post haste.
Now a days things aren't really much different save for the work that's being performed by the so called "illegals". The wealthy hire them to clean their houses, they clean the dishes in our restaurants, and scrub the toilets in our office towers for less money then most people would accept for opening their eyes every morning. Cynical and unscrupulous employers hire them knowing they can do what they want with them and also secure in the knowledge that while their employees will be deported if caught, there will always be more to replace them. It's not only in North America where you'll find migrant workers; all over the world men and women leave their homes to find work in an effort to feed their families. Not everyone guards their borders and their shit jobs as jealously as we do in North America, but what kind of world is this that we make people leave their homes behind them in order to eat.
Este Mundo (this world), the new CD from Rupa & The April Fishes being released on the Cumbancha label October 27, 2009 explores the kind of world this is through their songs. There are songs about love, about trying to find one's way in this world, about people who are lost, and the frontiers we all have to cross – whether they're the ones that separate countries or the ones we build up between ourselves and others. Full of unexpected joys and infectious rhythms, nonetheless there are as many songs tinged with the sorrow for the world as there are once that celebrate it. Maybe that's what Rupa and company want us to know though, that for every sorrow, there's a joy and if we keep travelling along we will find them in equal measure.
Based out of San Francisco California, Rupa & The Fishes are familiar with the problems of migrant workers and frontier. Lead signer Rupa Marya is no stranger to moving either having lived in India and the south of France with her parents before the finally settled in the Bay area. She's even experienced what economic hardship can do to a family, for as a child her parents were forced to send her off to live with family in India when they were unable to provide for her properly themselves. So when she sings about the difficulties faced by families and individuals in this world, she speaks with the voice of experience.
The songs on Este Mundo reflect Rupa's polyglot background as the lyrics are in French, Spanish, and even the occasional one in English. While that may make it a little more difficult for some of us to understand the lyrics, the languages work with their respective songs as they sound like they fit the music. For us uni-lingual types the CD comes with a booklet that provides the lyrics in their original language and a translation into English. Anyway, doesn't it seem appropriate to be singing a song like "Por La Frontera" (Along The Border) in Spanish when it talks about a line that's worth more then life, an obvious reference to the American Mexican border? How can a line be worth more then life? When people die crossing it on an almost daily basis is how.
Although some of the songs are definitely political in nature, that doesn't stop Rupa and The Fishes from including ones that are pure poetry as well. "Neruda", lists the poet Pablo Neruda as its author, with additional lyrics by Marya, and although I'm only slightly familiar with his work, it has the same feel to it as any of his poetry that I've read. To my mind its something he shares with the great American poet e.e. cummings; an ability to express gratitude for the various wonders that you can find in life. "thank you violins/for this day/of four chords/pure is the sound/of the sky/the blue voice/of the air". When I read that I can't help but think of the soft blue skies of spring, full of promise for new life.
Musically the disc is as diverse as the topics covered by the lyrics as one song will have a hint of reggae, another will see Marya delivering her lyrics in a rap, another will sound like its from the streets of Paris, and yet another could be from Seville, home of Flamenco. What's amazing about this, is that instead of sounding like some God-awful mess when you listen to it, it's more like somebody has figured out how to put together a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that you don't think should fit together, but the final picture makes perfect sense. It helps that "The Fishes"; Aaron Kierbel (drums, percussion) Isabel Douglass (accordion and bandoneon), Safa Shokrai (acoustic and electric bass), Ed Baskerville (cello), Marucs Cohen (trumpet), and Rupa (glockenspiel, guitar, vocals, and wineglass), play instruments that are suited for working with others to create an overall sound instead of the normal popular music instruments which are geared towards individual creation. Therefore, they are more adept at finding a way of pulling diverse elements together to make a whole.
There are two instrumental tracks on this disc, the first song "La Frontera", and the ninth song "El Camino Del Diablo (The Devil's Highway). The second title refers to a stretch of treacherous land in Arizona's Sonoran desert full of ancient trails that run through the badlands. Most of the 1,000 people who died between 1995 and 2000 trying to get into the U.S. did so in this region, and most of them died of thirst and exposure. The song is a mournful trumpet being played over the sound a desolate wind blowing. "La Frontera" is equally sad, however the trumpet is replaced by cello and the mournful cry of someone calling out. As there are no lyrics, the band has included a dedication for the disc in their place. To the memory of those "migrantes" who have lost their lives making the perilous journeys around the world looking for work and a better life for their families. The band also offers their best wishes and respect to those making the journey and welcomes them.
Like Woody Guthrie seventy years ago, Rupa & The Fishes make it pretty clear which side they are on in the whole illegal immigrant argument. Unlike Woody though their music doesn't necessarily speak to the specific issue, but instead addresses the band's overall concern for the human condition, and through that they find their way to the Mexican American border. Although there's a spring in the step of this music, it's not the most cheerful. You can still dance to it like you could the Fishes' previous disc, but it will also make you think a lot more than you'd expect. Read the lyrics if you don't speak French and Spanish, listen to the music, and feel what it is they are talking about – it makes a lot more sense than anything any politician has to say on the subject of immigration.