Ruby Singh is a musician, poet, visual artist, photographer, and filmmaker. According to the About section of his website, "his expressions engage with mythos, memory, identity, justice and fantasy; where the surreal can shatter the boundaries of the real."
He unleashes a hearty laugh when asked to explain just what exactly that all means.
"All those subjects are kind of the impulse behind creating a lot of my art," says Singh on the line from his home near Commercial Drive. "Whether engaging in the idea of myth, or looking at the world as mythic—or mystic, even—so that that is a perspective that I essentially just come from, because it's embedded inside of me to view and have a relationship with the world that way.
"And then memory, for me, is a lot around what invokes a sense of nostalgia, what for me feels like it can hold a place for that which we remember in our human bodies, but how we can also open up the memory of most of the more-than-human world—which kinda relates to the fantasy edge of things as well. And identity and justice, growing up in the world that I've grown up in, those are two things that have been embedded in me, in looking at how our various different identities intersect, where marginalization lives, and where marginalization needs to be shattered."
Vancouverites wanting to see for themselves what Singh's art is all about have two options at this year's Indian Summer Festival, which kicks off June 17. July 8 will bring an online event titled Ancient Futures—Musical Inheritances, which will feature the premiere of a short documentary about his 2020 album, Jhalaak (pronounced "ja-luck"), a fusion of traditional Sufi music with rap rhyming and EDM beats. The screening will be followed by a conversation between Singh, Inuit throat-singing duo PIQSIQ (pronounced "pilk-silk"), and local musician Khari Wendell McClelland.
"These are some of my best friends," he points out. "I'm the producer for PIQSIQ, and Khari has been a longtime, dear, dear friend. And it wasn't until [Indian Summer co-founder and artistic director] Sirish [Rao] pointed it out that we should all be in conversation with this idea of ancient futures because in all of our work we're bringing our ancestry and what has allowed us to be here to the present moment, and using that as a way for stepping into the creation right now.
"Khari, with his Freedom Singer project, looked into the journey of his great-great-great grandmother Kizzy, her journey on the Underground Railroad up north, and was reimagining what songs she would have been signing that would have accompanied her on that journey. And then PIQSIQ of course are doing an incredible reimagining of traditional Inuit throat-singing. So we're all bringing these sonic forms from the past into the present and forward into the future, thus the title Ancient Futures."
The other Indian Summer Festival event Singh is involved with is VOX.Infold, an in-person installation that runs from June 23 to July 4 at Lobe Spatial Sound Studio on East Hastings.
"This is like one of the most incredible auditory spaces I've ever been in," he raves. "And what the space is is essentially they have speakers placed all around the room, and you can direct the sound in and around those speakers, and you create like a spatial sound. So it's gonna be one bubble of listeners at a time entering the space, and having a chance to listen to it in this 4D sound. The music will feel like singers are dancing around you with their voices, which I'm really ecstatic about."
Singh—who likes to listen to everything from 1940s Bollywood to Bulgarian women's choirs to Robert Johnson in his spare time—is also thrilled about the "powerhouse musicians" that will join him for VOX.Infold. Those include vocalists Dawn Pemberton, Russell Wallace, Tiffany Kuliktana Ayalik and Kayley Inuksuk Mackay (the sisters from PIQSIQ), Tiffany Moses, and Shamik Bilgi.
"It is made up of all racialized folks, from the black, Indigenous, and POC community," notes Singh. "One of the intentions behind it was to create a space where we could kind of bring our voices and our creativity without the idea of essentially how you can feel restricted in some white-dominated places. We wanted to open up a space where we could follow our impulses.
"The music that we created is focused on...I would say there's a lot of polyrhythms. Polyphony in and of itself is a philosophy that a lot of my work is working with, not only in a musical term, but in a relational term—between us, each other, and the planet as a whole. So I would say the music evokes everything from loneliness, joy, mystery, to the supernatural. I'm really excited by the music we've created."
Singh's website mentions that he was born in the Crow's Nest Pass and "now calls the lands of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and səl̓ílwətaʔɬ/Selilwitulh Nations home". So now that he's living on unceded territory, what impact has colonialism had on how he approaches his art?
"Wow," he replies, "that's a huge question. I love it. Well, I am creating art in a colonial context, right. There's no way around that, 'cause it's everywhere. You know, it's written on my passport. I definitely hold a lot of privilege as a settler creating music and art on these traditional stolen lands, so I hold that to be true. And through my art I try to invoke a decolonial process, where we are focused on process, and not just the product. So those would be the two things I would mainly think of, but it's a pretty deep question. I feel like I could talk about that for a long time."
Indian Summer Festival takes place from June 17 to July 17. For more information, visit IndianSummerFest.ca.