Healing through sound: SOAS alumna Ruhiya returns to perform

Ruhiya is a British-Filipino singer who uses music as a way to heal and reconnect with her heritage. Her work is a coming together of cultures and genres, culminating in soulful music that is at once calming and invigorating. As part of the SOAS Concert Series, she will be performing her latest album alongside special guests Elena Jessup, Zayn Mohammed, Jason Reyes-Walsh and Filippo Galli on Wednesday, 22 February.

Get your tickets here.

What started off as a few songs grew into a 9-track collection that she released as her debut album, Ginhawa, in July 2022. Ginhawa translates to ‘breath’ in her native Visayan, which is a title reflective of soothing music that is almost a reminder to slow down, stretch your limbs, and take a breath. The album is in collaboration with Zayn Mohammed, an award-winning instrumentalist and producer. Both artists have roots from Asia as well as Britain, making their music a seamless fusion of the East and West.

The dichotomy of being born in the UK and having a Filipino mother largely affects her work. With songs like ‘Bulawan’, she tries to reimagine a pre-colonial Philippines rich with gold and energy. She reiterates that she is not the first to use music to connect with her heritage, but she does follow a beautiful tradition of trying to reconnect with and preserve remnants of the past in her songs. She shared, ‘Trying to sing in Filipino, learn the songs and have my lyrics translated, have all been an attempt to learn my language’.

Instead of sitting down with the aim of writing music, she allows music to come to her naturally. She draws inspiration from everything around her, listening to a broad variety of music. Her latest favourite has been Indian Ragas, which are melodic frameworks in Indian classical music. She recently travelled to Delhi and Baroda in India, where she immersed herself in listening to live Raaga, and also sang sacred songs for a concert. In her own music, the varied influences of folk, jazz, soul and chants are evident.

The healing power of sound is often underestimated. Ruhiya believes in this power very deeply, even having formally trained as a certified sound healing practitioner. She thinks music was subconsciously healing her even long before she realised. This is true for all of us - the chirping of birds and waves crashing onto rocks slows down our heart rate and makes us feel relaxed - we are being healed by these sounds without even noticing. The power of sound is being increasingly researched and recognised, with kidney and gallstones being broken up using sound waves and HIFU (high-intensity focused ultrasound) being used in some clinics to treat prostate cancer. She works with UK-based charity Duty to Care to provide free sound healing sessions for NHS workers.

She received an MA in Music in Development from SOAS in 2021. She recalls the excitement when she found the course, because of its understanding of music as a culturally embedded practice and its potential for communication and transformation in the context of development. She says it's no coincidence that she was recording while studying at SOAS and that the perspectives she learned in the classroom equipped her with the skills needed to create an album such as this. Learning about sacred music in Asia largely has inspired her work.

According to her, recording in a studio is contrasted with performing for an audience. The former serves as a controlled environment where you can be experimental, and an initial idea can go in many different directions- anything can happen. This is true even while playing for an audience, but the performers need to react to the energy in the room. She adores both experiences.

For Ruhiya, it is simultaneously comforting and intimidating to be coming back to SOAS to perform. Due to pandemic related restrictions it has been delayed and is now long awaited. Performing at SOAS can be scary because it is in front of people knowledgeable about her kind of music, but this also means they appreciate her songs more. Come watch Ruhiya and friends perform Ginhawa on Wednesday, 22 February, at the Brunei Gallery. Get your tickets here.

About the author

Shloka Murarka is a SOAS Digital Ambassador studying BSc Economics. Coming from India, her primary field of interest is in development. She also loves to travel, find her at @shlokapoka on Instagram.