Who is Ruby Singh, and why are we even asking this question?
The son of Sikh immigrant parents, Singh is a Vancouver-based arts facilitator, cultural facilitator and experimental musician with interests in beat boxing, polyphonic singing and improvisation. His latest album is Vox.Infold, an a cappella soundscape of Indigenous, Inuit, Black and South Asian voices. Before that, the 2020s Jhalaak is a work of hip hop, global bass sounds and Sufi poetry. Last year Polyphonic Garden: Suite 1Singh converted electrical data from plants and fungi into ambient sounds.
That’s a lot to take in – maybe too much for some. Singh doesn’t just cross genders, he straddles the astral planes.
“I like to push boundaries and I like to experiment sonically,” says Sing, 45, speaking from Vancouver. “I can see how my music would really differ from project to project. I see a through line, though.
Singh’s common thread involves the themes of identity and self-relationship. He is dedicated to polyphony (derived from the Greek word meaning “several sounds”) not only in music, but also in philosophy, poetry and rhythm.
So there’s a lot going on, all at the same time. Singh believes he has matured as a musician with the release of his last three albums. His friends and associates do not disagree.
“I think he’s reached the most powerful version of himself,” says soul singer Dawn Pemberton, who has known Singh for more than two decades. “It’s pretty easy to come up with ideas, but Ruby brings them to life.”
Well known as a workshop leader and mentor in various Vancouver scenes and communities, Singh’s extracurricular work may have overshadowed his music. And even with his music, it was his live performances that caught the eye rather than his albums.
“But now he’s recording things,” says Jarrett Martineau, a longtime collaborator and host-creator of CBC Radio’s Indigenous music series Recovered. “Not only that, he’s putting his artistry into focus in a major way.”
Vox.Infoldavailable on Bandcamp now and elsewhere on February 14, is an immersive experience of looping beats, breathing, and vocals that deserves to be placed on a Dunes soundtrack. It is Singh’s most compelling and vibrant work to date. “He lives in a work of color,” says Pemberton, one of the album’s seven vocalists, including Singh. “And we were the colors in his palette.”
Talking to Singh about “plantwave” technology or social justice or chardi kala (the Punjabi term for a mental state of eternal optimism and joy), it’s easy to get lost in things other than music. Albums that inspire his work include A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Maraudersby Bobby McFerrin circle songs and Björk’s Vespertine. He is also a follower of Bollywood composer SD Burman and Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Asked to sum up his own musical landmarks, Singh says this: “I’m a beatboxer and a singer, and I’ve been obsessed with the human voice for a long, long time.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Singh presented Vox.Infold as a sound installation at the recent Push International Performing Arts interdisciplinary festival in Vancouver rather than a live performance. It took place at Lobe, a sound studio using a 4DSOUND system, with ceiling and underfloor speakers, in conjunction with vibroacoustic floor panels.
The space is the first of its kind in North America, yet relatively few people know about it. The same could probably be said for Singh, especially outside of Vancouver. “I feel like the Rockies are this cultural curtain that’s pulled across the West Coast and it’s so hard to get through that curtain,” Singh says. “A lot of the time it feels like we’re shadow dancing for the rest of Canada. But maybe it’s just me.
It’s not just Singh.
“It’s an endemic problem for artists in Vancouver,” Martineau acknowledges. “It’s almost as if the Rockies are creating a symbolic barrier to being heard over the mountain range.”
None of Singh’s past albums have been nominated for the annual Polaris Music Prize, an award that specializes in recognizing eclectic, forward-thinking records and artists. In fact, in Polaris’ 16-year history, of the 160 albums shortlisted, less than 20 are from British Columbia. Only one Polaris winner lives west of the Rockies. That would be Hawaiian folk icon Buffy Sainte-Marie.
“I think it’s really an arts and culture issue in Canada,” Singh says. “It doesn’t seem helpful, but it feels like we’re so far from what’s considered the center of Canada’s cultural hubs that we’re often overlooked here.”
Singh, an artist intrigued by the human voice, fails to make his own heard.
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