Who is Ruby Singh, and why are we even asking that question?
The son of Sikh immigrant parents, Singh is a Vancouver-based arts facilitator, cultural convenor and experimental musician interested in beat boxing, polyphonic vocals and improvisation. His latest album is Vox.Infold, an a cappella soundscape of Indigenous, Inuit, Black and South Asian voices. Previous to that, 2020′s Jhalaak is a work of hip hop, global bass sounds and Sufi poetry. On last year’s Polyphonic Garden: Suite 1, Singh converted electrical data from plants and fungi into ambient sounds.
That’s plenty to take in – perhaps too much for some. Singh isn’t just crossing genres, he’s straddling 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 look really different from project to project. I see a through line, though.”
Singh’s common thread involves themes of identity and the relationship to self. He’s devoted to polyphony (derived from the Greek word for “many sounds”) not just when it comes to music, but also philosophy, poetry and rhythm.
So, a lot happening, 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 potent version of himself,” says soul singer Dawn Pemberton, who has known Singh for more than two decades. “It’s easy enough to have ideas, but Ruby actually makes them happen.”
Well-known as a workshop leader and a mentor across a variety of Vancouver scenes and communities, Singh’s extracurricular work has perhaps overshadowed his music. And even with his music, it has been his live performances that have attracted attention instead of his albums.
“But now he’s putting things down on record,” says Jarrett Martineau, a long-time collaborator and the host-creator of CBC Radio’s Indigenous music series Reclaimed. “Not only that, he’s bringing his artistry into focus in a major way.”
Vox.Infold, available on Bandcamp now and elsewhere Feb. 14, is an immersive experience of looped beats, breathing and vocals that deserves placement on a Dune soundtrack. It is Singh’s most mesmerizing, vibrant work yet. ”He lives in a work of colour,” says Pemberton, one of the album’s seven vocalists, including Singh. “And we were the colours on his palette.”
Speaking to Singh about “plantwave” technology or social justice or chardi kala (the Punjabi term for a mental state of eternal optimism and joy), it is easy to get lost in things other than the music. Albums that inspire his work include A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders, Bobby McFerrin’s Circle Songs and Bjork’s Vespertine. He’s also a devotee of Bollywood composer S.D. Burman and Pakistani vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Asked to encapsulate his own musical bearings, Singh says this: “I’m a beatboxer and a vocalist, and I’ve been obsessed with the human voice for a long, long time.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Singh presented Vox.Infold as a sound installation at the recent interdisciplinary Push International Performing Arts Festival in Vancouver instead of as a live performance. It was held at Lobe, a sound studio using a 4DSOUND system, with speakers across the ceiling and under the floor, in conjunction with vibroacoustic floor panels.
The space is the first of its kind in North America, and yet relatively few people know about it. The same could probably be said about Singh, especially outside of Vancouver. “It does feel like the Rockies are this cultural curtain that’s drawn over the West Coast and it’s so hard to reach through that curtain,” Singh says. “Mostly it feels like we are shadow dancing for the rest of Canada. But maybe that’s just me.”
It’s not just Singh.
“It’s an endemic problem for Vancouver artists,” Martineau agrees. “It’s almost like the Rockies create a symbolic barrier from being heard over the mountain range.”
None of Singh’s albums in the past have been nominated for the annual Polaris Music Prize, an award that specializes in the recognition of eclectic, avant-garde records and artists. In fact, in Polaris’s 16-year history, of the 160 shortlisted albums less than 20 have come from British Columbia. Only one Polaris winner lives west of the Rockies. That would be the Hawaii-based folk icon Buffy Sainte-Marie.
“I think it’s really an arts and culture issue in Canada,” Singh says. “It doesn’t feel purposeful, but it does feel like we are so far away from what is considered the centre of Canada’s cultural hubs that we are often overlooked out here.”
Singh, an artist intrigued by the human voice, can’t get his own heard.
Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.