In 2015, Rupa Marya got an email from a Canadian indigenous elder who’d listened to one of her old songs (“Water”) off of La Pêcheuse, her band Rupa and the April Fishes’ obscure 2006 debut EP. The band had never even played “Water” live, but the old recording struck this woman very intensely. It was sacred, she told Marya in the email. She invited Marya to come to Canada and re-record it with nine indigenous women.
“How can I refuse that?” Marya says. “We sat in ceremony for eight hours and worked on music for maybe three. That was it for me. I was like, ‘Oh yeah, music is the medicine.’”
It was a message Marya needed to hear. At the time, she hadn’t been playing music for a couple of years. Ever since she became a mother in 2013, she’d set aside music and was focusing on her work as a physician and as an associate professor of medicine at UCSF.
“Becoming a mother is a life-altering event,” Marya says. “I started to question, ‘What is the purpose of music when we have 12 years to get our shit together before we’re faced with increasing climate catastrophes?’”
Still, receiving a random email from a Canadian indigenous elder telling you that your song is sacred is a pretty big sign that your music has purpose. After that experience, Marya started writing music again. Her latest album, Growing Upward, which contains the re-recorded version of “Water” (now called “Water Song”) and 11 other new songs, was released in April. It’s her first in seven years. On it, she finds her identities as a songwriter, a storyteller, a physician, and an activist coming together in a new way.
“I’ve been walking these parallel lives for a while. It’s always made sense how these things intertwine, but now that intertwining is deeper,” Marya says. “It’s finally all coming together.”
Since the formation of Rupa and the April Fishes over a decade ago, Marya has explored a wide range of musical styles. She blended jazz, Indian ragas, reggae, and gypsy punk, singing in multiple languages. She’s also always seen her music as a tool for dialogue, and as a way to engage with socials issues in a productive way. Her 2009 album Este Mundo was based around conversations she had with people on both sides of the border to tell the story of immigration in the U.S.
But now she’s moved from documentarian to participant. Growing Upward in some cases tells her own stories of social justice involvement and lessons she’s learned from these personal experiences, as well as larger topics she’s explored. The song “Frontline,” for instance, is about her time in Standing Rock providing indigenous people with free medical services.
While it may deal with heavy issues of injustice and climate catastrophe, Growing Upward is still filled with optimism. The title track is sung from the perspective of a plant, a gorgeous, hopeful image.
If you get a physical copy of the album, you’ll get actual seed packets. The concept came from the time she spent with indigenous people and seeing their connection to the earth.
“They were given with the intention of wanting to spread that beautiful magic and that vision of people planting their own medicine. And people reawakening their own bond to the Earth and its capacity to heal you,” Marya says. “We’ve all lost our way to an increasingly industrialized society. We’ve lost that connection.”
The seeds are also a sign of hope that we can change the course of history through small positive changes. This message is conveyed visually on her album cover, which was designed by Mona Caron. But she also hopes people literally plant the seeds.
“We the people have the capacity to move things in the right direction. I want people to see that and see that,” Mayra says. “It’s such a beautiful, hopeful experience. That resiliency gives me hope.”
INFO: 8:30 p.m. Sunday, May 26. Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. $10 adv/$15 door. 479-1854.