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- Posted on Apr 28th 2009 11:00AM by Steve Hochman
The colorful San Francisco band -- led by a young woman of Indian heritage performing songs involving and influenced by Colombian cumbias, French chanson, Argentine tangos and Gypsy swing, among other things -- has just wrapped up a short jaunt of concerts along the region marked by the border between the United States and Mexico. Billed, fittingly, as 'Por la Frontera,' the tour kicked into gear with a show literally straddling the border -- half the band playing on the Mexico side and half on the U.S. side at the Tijuana/San Diego crossing. From there, it ran through Arizona and Texas to the concluding two dates at the Festival Internationale in Lafayette, La. (And, of course, they blogged along the way.) The concerts, though, were really a means to another end.
"We're doing this tour as part of a project called ¡Catapulta!, a project about immigration," says Rupa Marya, while munching on a bean and cheese quesadilla at a Yuma, Ariz., pit stop while motoring between El Centro and Tucson. "The purpose of this tour is to gather research information, meet with people and see with our own eyes what is happening down here at the border."
And their own eyes were getting quite the opening.
"We spent the first few days in Tijuana at the respite house for people who have been deported," she says. "Went down to the ocean and took some footage and video. We interviewed one young man who had broken his ankle and has a PCL tear that happened while running away from Border Patrol. He'll probably never walk again. There was a doctor at El Centro I interviewed, wonderful physician, talking about morbidity and mortality of people crossing the border. We crossed this morning to Calexico and went to a graveyard and talked to the caretaker about unmarked graves of people there who had died in the desert. We're just trying to learn the humanistic aspect of this border, and playing concerts along the way."
Of course, though she downplays the concerts a bit, there was no shortage of entertainment. The multimedia shows featured Rupa and crew along with visuals by social-activist artist, photographer and filmmaker Lars Howlett. And the whole thing is leading to the bigger ¡Catapulta! venture to be presented in October under the auspices of the San Francisco Arts Commission, with the band, Howlett's audio-visual documents from the tour, the Latino music/theater/dance/circus extravaganza LaMalaMaña and the Day Laborers Choir, all under the direction of choreographer Sara Shelton Mann.
Marya's deep awareness of and involvement with the issue also wasn't a result of music but an outgrowth of her day job -- she's a physician and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
"As a doctor, I've met a lot of people in San Francisco who are afraid to come see me until late in their disease process," she says. "The border is 600 miles from San Francisco, but look at the impact it's having. People won't come to see a doctor when they know they have cancer or know they might have to have a hand amputated. They're so afraid -- which is strange because this is a nation of immigrants. How did we create such a culture of fear in a country where people are just coming to work? It seems hypocritical and the antitheses of what makes the country great."
Marya understands the arguments vis-à-vis the issue of undocumented immigrants being here in violation of U.S. law, but she sees a larger context that to her view is often swept under the rug in discussions.
"If we're going to take advantage of people's labor in this country, we should guarantee their safety," she says. "If they're going to pick our fruit and bus our tables and wash our streets, we should protect them. We have kind of a slave labor system here, a large labor force making less than minimum wage and they have no redress for poor treatment. Now, if the people who are against this wanted to pay three dollars for a tomato, great. Put your money where your mouth is. But everyone in the U.S. benefits from the labor of undocumented immigrants. If we're going to have it, let's be realistic about it."
She adds, "Most of the people who come across the border are super-honest, hard-working people. It would be great it Mexico had a strong economy. None of them would come. They want to stay with their families, be with their culture. But it's the work, the economic situation driving everything. And if all the lawmakers and people who are stuck on illegal versus legal would pay attention to this, they'd have a more reasonable attitude."
As an artist, Marya is cautious about turning songs into tracts. But, understandably, the border experiences are having a strong impact on the songs the band has been recording for its second album, which she says will incorporate audio-documentary and ambient clips from her recent journey.
"It's definitely reflected in lyrics I've been writing," she says. "I've written probably four songs directly about the border. One is about crossing the border through the desert. Another, 'La Linea' -- 'The Line' -- is about lines people can't cross, both figurative and literal. Those are songs directly affected by musical styles of Latin America as well as by the issue. Next, what will be coming out will probably be more abstract and impressionistic, as I try to understand what I'm seeing. For me, you internalize these experiences and it takes some time to get a sense of how I'm going to write."
And while she sees the matter of immigrant rights ultimately governed by the bottom line, her music, she stresses, is about another bottom line -- one that can't be drawn on a ledger or a map.
"I don't think our music is necessarily about borders and crossing them," she says. "It's about finding what's common in human beings and approaching an inquiry about who we are and what we are doing on the basis of these sounds that identify different cultures -- but have become part of everyone's sonic environment. When you walk down a street in San Francisco, you can hear several languages blaring out of car radios. It's the same thing all over the world. It can happen in Marseilles. It's not about crossing borders, but I have been interested in borders from the people I'm around and the problems they face."