In its second show this year at the North Star, the San Francisco-based Rupa & the April Fishes brought its blend of hopped-up Gypsy jazz, smoky French chanson, tangofied Argentine milonga and even Latin ska to town Sunday night.
Drummer Aaron Kierbel drove everything, as a stand-up bass pulsed and a cello mellifluously sawed; trumpeter Marcus Cohen added brittle-sweet tones (and later gratefully noted his years of instruction at South Philadelphia's Girard Academic Music Program magnet secondary school).
Leader Rupa Marya, the easygoing singer-guitarist of the touring six-piece, took advantage of the living-room intimacy and launched a midset question-and-answer session with the audience. Yes, the band members had all voted absentee and were eager to toast President Obama at their show Election Night in New York; the accordion was Italian (an Excelsior), said player Isabel Douglass; and so on.
Then Marya, a medical doctor and California-born daughter of Indian immigrants, who acquired her fluency growing up in the South of France, before the family relocated back to the Bay Area, explained the next song, "La Rose." It was a languid new one, based on a poem by the great 14th-century Sufi mystic Hafez.
It was followed by "La Linea" and "Por La Frontera," two of the Spanish songs slated for the band's second album. They were lively reggae-to-Euro-ska numbers, somewhat like Manu Chao without the videogame effects, dealing with U.S./Mexico border issues. (Marya has been sharpening her Spanish working with a Tijuana facility harboring would-be emigres who are being deported by the United States.)
Another foreign perspective was presented by the galloping "Une Americaine à Paris" from the band's debut, this year's eXtraOrdinary rendition, before closing with the Romani-language cover "Opa Cupa."
Once, the concept of world music was suspect, especially when offered by homegrown Stateside outfits. Was it more rote, beach-y reggae with ersatz ethnic touches thrown in by dreadlocked white kids? Well-intentioned, second-rate takes on tropical Talking Heads?
Now, top-shelf American acts like Rupa & the April Fishes offer stirring worldly mixes, many also carrying a Balkanized bent, like New York's Gogol Bordello and the excellent local West Philadelphia Orchestra - a welcome change.