While much supposedly "boundary-crossing" music can end up bogged down in dubious fusion, the music of Rupa & the April Fishes works because it's rooted in broadly sympathetic musical styles.
Este Mundo is the second album from San Francisco band Rupa & the April Fishes, following the well-received Extraordinary Rendition in 2008. Like its predecessor, it presents a mixture of global styles, including pop, jazz, Colombian cumbia, Argentinian milonga, French chanson, Indian ragas, and gypsy brass. Only one of the songs is in English, with Rupa Marya singing mostly in French and Spanish. The instrumental line-up includes accordion, upright bass, cello, and prominent trumpet. As a group, Rupa & the April Fishes represent a number of different cultural backgrounds, and it is clear that their musical mission is to create an esoteric mixture of sounds and styles, putting them in similar musical territory as Manu Chao, Gogol Bordello, and Lhasa (the latter is particularly brought to mind in the Franco-Hispanic tunes that make up the new group of songs).
But it is not only musical boundaries that Rupa wishes to challenge and explore on this album. The recurring theme is geographical borders, especially the US-Mexican one. A number of the songs explicitly highlight the plight of migrant workers (to whom the album is also dedicated), and the CD booklet is illustrated with pictures of the border fence. Issues of migration, liminality, love, and loss pervade Este Mundo, to mostly jaunty musical arrangements.
It's not immediately clear how "La Frontera", the opening montage, represents the dedication to lost migrants that is placed in lieu of lyrics in the booklet, but it clearly references the winding-up and/or breaking-down of instruments and other machines, off-kilter accordion suggesting that the fairground atmosphere of the April Fishes' sound may contain ominous as well as celebratory messages. The first song proper is "C'est Moi", sung in French over acoustic guitar, background noises, light percussion, and pump organ. The accordion emerges again from the background noise to lend carnival ambiance, and is soon joined by squeaky, quirky cartoon trumpet while Rupa delivers the line "Je ne sais rien de l'amour" (I don't know anything about love) in a breathy percussive manner that is quite affecting.
"Por la Frontera" ups the pace with quickfire percussion and blasts of trumpet, trombone, and sousaphone. It's a catchy song with a fiesta feel that is undermined by the delivery of the question, "Como una linea vale más que una vida?" (How can a line be worth more than a life?). This is followed by another border-influenced song, "La Linea", driven on a reggae bassline that recalls the work of Manu Chao, especially given its subject matter and Spanish lyrics. Between the verses there are fine trade-offs between trumpet and accordion. Indeed, Marcus Cohen's trumpet and Isabel Douglass's accordion and bandoneón provide many of the finest moments on this album.
"La Rose" is an uptempo chanson about untraveled paths and abandoned wishes, another potentially somber lyric almost lost amidst the whirl and bright colors of its musical accompaniment. For those listeners who speak neither French nor Spanish and who don't have the translations of these songs to hand, it will not be at all clear how serious many of these lyrics are. This may not matter, given the richness of the music and its inherent catchiness, but Rupa Marya is clearly an earnest lyricist who wishes to get a set of messages across. She may wish to consider in future how words might be married to melodies more effectively.
Having established the Franco-Hispanic lyrical and musical world of the album, it comes as a slight surprise when the tremendously catchy Spanish-language "Soledad" (a Colombian cumbia written by Enrique Bonfante Castilla) is interrupted by an English-language rap (courtesy of Boots Riley of California hip-hoppers the Coup). It just about works, though it does seem like overly-conscious mixing-up.
"El Camino del Diablo" (The Devil's Highway), a reference to the dangerous trails that weave through the borderlands between Mexico and the US, is an instrumental piece featuring appropriately funereal trumpet. In a nice bit of sequencing, the trumpet (now mapping a space somewhere between Sketches of Spain-era Miles Davis and the desert soundscapes of Calexico) carries over to the title track, a lovely example of Rupa's songwriting skills. Following this, "Soy Payaso" references Indian raga and utilizes tabla and bansuri flute in its opening textures, before switching to a kind of klezmer-cum-gypsy jazz style that alternates verses in French with a Spanish refrain. It's a confusing mix on paper, but the end result is harmonious enough to make the piece a decent example of the April Fishes' boundary-crossing.
While much supposedly "boundary-crossing" music can end up bogged down in dubious fusion -- as if it were an experiment in what would happen when two radically distinct styles or genres were cross-pollinated -- the music of Rupa & the April Fishes works because, while seeming eclectic, it is actually rooted in broadly sympathetic musical styles. There is a consistency to the soundworld on Este Mundo that leaves a strong impression of certain instrumental flavors (guitar, trumpet, accordion) that complement rather than swamp each other. While the group's eclecticism is often explained in relation to bandleader Rupa's culturally varied background (she grew up on three continents), the group as a whole are a fine example of what good musicians do best, especially in a fertile urban environment such as San Francisco. They converse and filter the results of their conversations through a finely-honed musical artistic sensibility.