Music: Raising Their Voice
Singer-songwriters Ruby Velle and Anita Aysola have turned heads on the soul-funk and jazz stage—not only with the power of their voice but also with the resonance of the messages their music conveys.
[Left] “There’s an intention of offering healing through sound,” says Ruby Velle. (Photo: Elaine Torres).
RUBY VELLE: Punjabi singer brings desi heart to Southern soul
Ruby Velle steps onto the stage sporting a dark blue floral lace dress and glittering gold bangles embedded with stones. Without a moment for a breath, she plunges right into an upbeat tune while her band, the Soulphonics, plucks strings, blows saxophones, and thumps funky beats around her. The audience at Atlanta’s Garden Club at Wild Heaven West End is on their feet within minutes, and it has little to do with the beer flowing on tap at the brewery.
There’s something about the richness of Velle’s voice that’s reminiscent of Amy Winehouse, except that Velle gives off a far more sanguine vibe. After all, she thrives off the energy exchange with her audience during live shows. “That’s what I crave the most when I’m on stage, and what I give off when I’m on stage,” says Velle. “There’s an intention of offering healing through sound … I feel a deep connection with the soulfulness,” she adds. That depth is reflected also in Velle’s voice, which she has strengthened throughout her life, now crooning on stage to evoke comfort, joy, and healing for her listeners.
[Top] When Velle steps up to the stage at Atlanta’s Garden Club at Wild Heaven West End, the audience is on their feet within minutes, and it has little to do with the beer flowing on tap at the brewery. (Photo: Amritha Alladi Joseph).
Influenced by the classics
Born to a Punjabi family on the outskirts of Toronto, Canada, Ruby Velle was instilled with a love for music in her childhood, when her family met a couple from Liverpool, England, whose passion for classic tunes was infectious. The couple, John and June, eventually became godparent figures for Velle’s family. Velle charges “Uncle John,” a casual bass player himself, with introducing her to the greats of the golden age of music: the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, and Aretha Franklin. Together, the two families would listen to vinyl records. “I got this beautiful exposure to the classic era of music,” Velle recalls.
Eventually, simply listening wasn’t enough. Velle wanted to exude that musical energy herself by learning to sing and play instruments. She joined choir programs and began soloing in Italian opera, through which she realized that she could control her voice far better than she could any instrument. What started as a falsetto trill steeled into the powerful voice that today booms: “I am fine with running, as long as it’s my direction. Don’t try to show me the way.”
“I learned how to project my voice,” Velle says, realizing that the skill became useful in more ways than one.
The beginnings of a band
Despite her progressive family’s love for music, her parents advised against her pursuing a career as a singer, so she took to marketing and advertising in college instead—all the while performing gigs locally in her college town of Gainesville, Florida. She figured that marketing skills would be useful in promoting music as an independent artist. She auditioned for a local soul band, the Elements, and when the lead singer dropped out, Velle stepped in as frontwoman to recreate the band with some of the original members, launching the Soulphonics in 2006. Core bandmates Spencer Garn (keys) and Scott Clayton (guitar) stuck with her when she moved to Atlanta to pursue an arts degree in 2007.
[Left] Performing at Steady Hand Beer Company. (Photo: Jason Hales, Hales Photography).
Overcoming cultural pressures
When word of her late-night performances in bars reached her community, her parents felt all eyes on Velle. She and her mom started to butt heads more, compelling Velle to write “Feet on the Ground,” a song that encourages young people and their families to give youngsters room to pursue their dreams as long as they stay grounded in the right values.
“They really didn’t want this to be more than a hobby for me. I had to really prove myself,” Velle says. The proof eventually came, 10 years in, when Velle and her band were invited to perform at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. for a concert that focused on how immigrant music shapes the U.S. in
a better way.
Her extended family flew in for the performance. “It was super powerful. My parents got tear-eyed about it,” Velle remembers. That evening, for the first time, as a nod to her heritage and show of respect for the sanctity of the stage, Velle started a ritual of touching the stage before she stepped on to perform. After the show, Velle’s mother asked her what compelled her to do so. “This is my temple. This is where I go to sort out what I’m feeling and to share it with others,” Velle explains. “It makes me feel alive, and I know for a fact that it makes other people feel alive. If I’m supposed to be here to light and inspire others, I can’t be stifled in this.” At that point, Velle’s parents finally understood and had a change of heart, fully supporting her career decision as a musician.
Harnessing the healing power of the soul
Songwriting has been cathartic for Velle, as she uses her music—which typically covers themes of change and fighting to stay true to oneself—to heal others as well. As a certified sound therapist, she incorporates the hum from crystal bowls and the rhythm of ocean drums into her performances. For lyrics, she draws upon personal lessons learned, current events, and cultural issues to which she brings new perspectives. Given soul music’s roots in serving Black communities as a vehicle of change, Velle says she does not want to veer from the genre’s original intent and characteristics.
[Right] Velle’s billboard-charting debut album, It’s About Time, recently remastered for its 10th anniversary. (Photo: Bruce Clem).
As she and the band turn to producing their third album, she’s exploring her heritage, themes of unity, and the blending of traditions in India. For instance, her recent music video, “Straight Out of the Mud,” featured Kuchipudi dance by her cousin and paid tribute to people who have influenced her life. The video, which was aired by Rolling Stone India, received a positive response despite Velle’s wariness that she produced it as a Canadian-born desi.
She has always been mindful that as an Indian born and raised in the West, she still has much to learn about her roots. At the same time, she feels her outside-in perspective gives her a unique lens through which to view and comment on issues affecting Indians. “I have such a reverence for the pan-Indian cultures,” Velle says. “I think there needs to be more unity in India. It doesn’t need to be religious-based or spiritual-based. It needs to be a human thread that connects us all.”
ANITA AYSOLA: Melding melodies and making noise
Atlanta artist infuses Eastern raagas into jazz while rallying audiences for a cause.
Days after you’ve heard the anthem, the haunting hum of Anita Aysola’s “Heartbeat” echoes. “We are the women of the world. We give life to this world. Can you hear our heartbeat?”
For some, the reprise comes off as a warning; for others, it summons like a defiant war cry.
[Left] Performing at Atlanta’s Garden Club. (Photo: Amritha Alladi Joseph).
The song was the Atlanta singer-songwriter’s reaction to the 2019 Heartbeat Bill, the restrictive abortion legislation making abortion illegal in Georgia as early as six weeks. After multiple attempts to thwart the legislation by contacting government officials, voting, protesting, and marching, Aysola finally channeled her anger, disappointment, and heartbreak into a song that surges against attacks on women’s rights everywhere, as if to say, “we will not remain silent.”
Aysola’s description of her music on her website is apt: “. . . a sultry-sweet voice that harkens back to the golden age of jazz, Atlanta-based songwriter Anita Aysola is a deft musical mixologist who seamlessly infuses jazz and blues with classic rock and traditional Indian influences.” Themes of activism and awareness are common in Aysola’s compositions, though her path to songwriting was not a straightforward one.
[Top] Anita Aysola’s description of her music on her website is apt: “. . . a sultry-sweet voice that harkens back to the golden age of jazz.” (Photo: Tiffany Walling McGarity)
Singing even before speaking
Aysola’s musical proclivities surfaced at a young age as her family remembers she started singing even before speaking. At age five, she started taking classical piano lessons, but her house had been brimming with music long before that—from popular Bollywood hits to weekly bhajan group chants. During her school years, she was also classically trained in Hindustani music and learned sitar as well, with raagas Desh and Jog becoming her favorites.
Despite her love for classical music, and her parents’ encouragement of her craft, she was still a daughter of immigrant parents from Andhra Pradesh and was steered toward a career in engineering, as math was a strong suit. “‘You’ll love engineering,’ people said, so I ended up not pursuing classical piano though I knew that music was something I wanted to do,” Aysola says.
[Right] Aysola’s album, Heartbeat, was in reaction to the 2019 Heartbeat Bill, the restrictive abortion legislation making abortion illegal in Georgia as early as six weeks. (Photo: Tiffany Walling McGarity).
She started the engineering track at the University of Michigan but quickly realized it wasn’t for her, so she switched her major to math and minored in music, all while earning a teaching certificate and joining a competitive acapella group. At least her new selections made her feel confident in her career prospects. “I knew I wanted to feel accomplished and support myself. I didn’t want to do something uninspired and mundane, but I didn’t know where to begin, or what aspect of music to pursue.”
It took several years of soul-searching and a variety of roles—from a math teacher serving in the Peace Corps to a “soul-sucking” actuarial consultant position serving corporate America—for her to be able to forge her career path. Starting in 2000, she began teaching and tutoring math at high schools; and through the years she has also been arming herself further with a Master’s in International Educational Policy from Harvard University and a Master’s in Musical Songwriting from Berklee College of Music. She fell into a steady teaching groove that provided her the freedom to perform on the side with a fusion band.
She was living the life of the double hustle, but something was off. “It still felt like something was missing when I was playing someone else’s work,” Aysola recalls. It was clear that she needed to write her own songs. Her collegiate foray into competitive acapella had already made Aysola feel comfortable with music beyond classical genres. It was just the push she needed to realize that stepping out of her comfort zone with songwriting could be just as rewarding, if not more. Like most writers, she hated the first drafts; but she was proud to put pen to paper to launch her first EP in 2008.
[Left] (Photo: Tiffany Walling McGarity).
Inspired by the sounds of Tori Amos, Norah Jones, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Aysola fused smooth jazz with Indian raagas. Now, she has started writing songs in Hindi with the release of “Mere Paas Hai,” a song about letting go of perfection, especially as an Indian woman facing societal pressures. The song starts with a soft Sanskrit prayer before switching to Hindi lyrics. By the last few bars, Aysola renders it in full force, personifying the liberation one feels once released from the shackles of perfection.
“If I could let go of being perfect all the time, then hopefully I can bring the cycle forward about how we talk about each other and ourselves,” says Aysola. It’s Aysola’s first original song in Hindi—translated, it means “I Have”—refers to having and being enough. The singer, freelance teacher, wife, and mom of two says she wants that message to ring clear for future generations as she herself has reached a point of accepting her journey as a successful one.
“The biggest thing is that I’m living my life as an artist and being authentically me and treating that as the success,” she says. “I don’t know when you’re supposed to feel like you’ve made it, but there has to be a point where you just have to do it. You commit to it and keep doing it and that is success. It has to be the exact opposite of the desi mentality about what it’s supposed to look like.”
Amritha Alladi Joseph, a former reporter for Gannett newspapers, The Hindu, The Gainesville Sun, Gainesville Magazine, and CNN-IBN, is now a consulting manager at EY and lives in Sandy Springs, Georgia, with her husband and two children.
Enjoyed reading Khabar magazine? Subscribe to Khabar and get a full digital copy of this Indian-American community magazine.
blog comments powered by Disqus