Poetry Friday: Rupa Marya’s “Une Américaine à Paris”

To mark Women’s History Month, I’ve been featuring works by desi women poets in a “Poetry Friday” series all month long. Here’s the last of four installments (1, 2, and 3.)

Songs are poetry, and singer-songwriter Rupa Marya has been on my radar for the past couple of weeks, ever since I found out about her world music band Rupa and the April Fishes (think the Indigo Girls meets traces of rupa.jpgNatalie Merchant meets “classic French chanson, Argentinean tango, Gypsy swing, American folk, Latin cumbias, and even hints of Indian ragas”). [It turns out that Abhi wrote about them last year. link]

The group’s debut album “Extraordinary Rendition” has been picked up by Cumbancha, a record label founded by the head of music research and product development at Putomayo World Music, Jacob Edgar. It releases on May 1, and Rupa and her gang are in the middle of a North American tour that includes NYC and the Montreal Jazz Festival.

A musician, songwriter, and (yes!) physician, the American-born daughter of Indian immigrants spent part of her childhood in France. Many of the songs on the band’s new album are in French. From an article in the SF Chronicle:

The years between the World Trade Center attacks in 2001 and the 2004 presidential election changed her outlook on life and prompted [Marya] to alter her sound completely, by writing in French.

“What happens if you communicate … in a way that people who don’t speak that language can understand what you’re saying?” Marya says. “Especially when the world was becoming much more afraid of differences. That’s when everything sort of took off into another place.

Her song Une Américaine à Paris, I think, conveys some of her post 9/11 reflections. The lyrics (reprinted with permission of Rupa and the April Fishes) follow, both in the original French and in Rupa’s English translation.

une américaine à paris by rupa marya

il y avait quelque jours en silence
j’ai pas dit un mot
et puis je t’ai rencontré ici à paris

assis près de moi dans un bistro
tu viens d’algiers
et moi je viens de san Francisco

un monde entre nous

tu m’as demandé
t’as pas peur être américaine
ici à paris
avec tous ces arabs fâchés

j’ai dit non, je ne suis pas américaine
tu n’es past arab et nous ne sommes pas à paris

un monde fou entre nous

qu’est que tu pense de tout cela?
de tous ces histories?
les histories nous rendent foux

t’as voulu prendre ton photo avec moi
j’ai dit non merci, pas de photo
je préfère la vie

je ne suis pas américaine
tu n’es past arab et nous ne sommes pas à paris
nous sommes dans la vie

un monde fou entre nous

an american in paris by rupa marya

there were a few silent days
i didn’t say a word
and then i met you here in paris

sitting next to me in a bistro
you come from Algiers
i come from san francisco

a world between us

you asked me
aren’t you afraid to be an american in paris
with all these angry arabs?

i said no. i’m not an american
you are not an arab and we are not in paris

a crazy world between us

what do you think of all of this?
what do you think of these stories?
these stories make us crazy

you asked me if you could a photo with me
i said no thank you, no photo, i prefer life

i’m not an american, you are not an arab
we are not in paris, we are in life

a crazy world between us

Surely this song is also influenced by her experience growing up as a brown girl in the South of France. From the Cumbancha website:

When Rupa was ten, her parents fell in love with and moved to the South of France. One of the few people of Indian descent in an area with a large Arab immigrant population, Rupa was immediately aware that the color of her skin lead people to make judgments about her before she even opened her mouth. “I remember being going into town with one of the ladies from my school” recalls Rupa, “and she said, ‘don’t worry, I’m going to introduce you as Indian otherwise they’re going to think you’re an Arab,’ as if that was a horrible thing. I remember being ten years old and always very aware of race and how people perceived me, and how I perceived myself. Living in the south of France , people always assumed that I was either Roma (Gypsy), or Arab. And so I was always very aware of how people treated my shade of brown ….

Here’s the music video for Une Américaine à Paris. I love the accordions and the aunties sitting at a corner table.

(Oh, and in case you’re wondering how she balances the music and medicine life – I sure was — according to the SF Chronicle piece mentioned above, she spends exactly half her time on her music, then every two months does a two-month stint as a physician resident at UCSF. Her songs are inspired by this experience, she says, in this “like seeing an old woman lose her love of 40 years to cancer.”)

15 thoughts on “Poetry Friday: Rupa Marya’s “Une Américaine à Paris”

  1. Geez, I kinda want to be a doctor now.

    This series kicked ass, by the way – thanks for spreading the word.

  2. Simply wonderful. So much richness in the texture of the music but in the meaning and resonance of the lyrics too. Wonderful talent.

  3. “I love this! Amardeep, can I have your iPod playlist? 😀 First Raghu Dixit, and then this? Bravo.”

    OK, I totally thought that Amardeep was writing this. My bad. Bravo, Sandhya!

  4. Sarya? Or Marya as the article says? Or is it some sort of play on words that I am not getting?

  5. oops, thank you for catching that, c’est moi. most definitely a typo. all fixed.



  6. her artwork is amazing. she’s really cute and smart. she’s a babe. there’s a lot of “lalalalalala” inthe song.

  7. Thanks! I really enjoyed this. Her site has several songs for free download – definitely going to check them out.

  8. Sri,

    You like her music simply because of the free downloads. You’re such a typical desi. 🙂 I’m kidding. Her music was smart and sexy.

    Her last name is “Marya”. Is that a Marwari name?

    14 · Sri said

    Thanks! I really enjoyed this. Her site has several songs for free download – definitely going to check them out.