This Sunday, Stern Grove Festival is presenting the U.S. debut of Filipina-Canadian artist, Han Han, who is opening for Anoushka Shankar, Land of Gold. We caught up with her to talk about her background, influences and creative process and as she prepares a new work commissioned by Stern Grove Festival for her performance on July 15, 2018.
How would you describe your music?
It is generally hip-hop but can also be considered world music (whatever world music means!). The words are written in two main Filipino languages, Tagalog and Cebuano, with a hint of English. The music itself is contemporary and urban with integration of traditional Filipino instrument sounds blending together smoothly. You can hear gongs, kubing and bamboo kulintang sounds if you keenly listen to the songs. The music is a reflection of our identity as Filipinos. We are “mixed-mixed”, in general, like a Halo-Halo Filipino dessert where you mix different fruits and other ingredients resulting in a sweet tasty blend that melts in your mouth.
How does being a Filipina-Canadian woman influence the music that you make?
Becoming an immigrant definitely influenced and encouraged me to start writing poetry which I later translated into music. My experiences as an immigrant, as a woman, and as a child of a single mother who was a Live-In-Caregiver in Canada and an OFW (Overseas Filipino Worker) were the inspirations to the songs in my first self-titled album, Han Han. Some songs were my social commentary to my culture and my culture’s mentality. Some are personal songs with words that I would like to tell myself.
Having experienced being deprofessionalized as a first generation immigrant, discriminated (even within my own community) and being a child of OFW parents, I became this poster child of young Filipino immigrants. I have accepted it. Writing in my own mother tongues is what I consider my own resistance against assimilation. Language and culture are intertwined. I certainly do not want to lose that connection between where I was born and where I am living right now. Lucky enough, Canada which prides itself on diversity, and living in Toronto, which is a very multicultural city, give me courage to do what I do. I am also lucky to have found a group of amazing, talented and creative individuals who are also seeking to connect with their roots through the arts. Most of them are second generation Filipino-Canadians. And perhaps, through my performances and music, I can show that when first- and second-generation immigrants unite, they can make magic. I was given the platform and opportunity so I took it with both hands and brought my community with me.
What can people expect to see for this performance at Stern Grove Festival?
Magic! There is always this shock factor from people who see us for the first time. This is my official performance as Han Han in the United States. We have been rehearsing and honing our set to give them the best possible show we can give. I will be performing with members from my Toronto art family collaborators, DATU and HATAW. Aside from music, there will be a lot of dancing, choreographed mainly by Fly Lady Di. All I want the audience to take from our performance is respect for our culture and community as Filipinos, both in the diaspora and in the Philippines. I hope they will also feel empowered and inspired because those are really the goals of our shows. We are just proud echoes of our ancestors. Lastly, I hope they enjoy it!
Stern Grove Festival has asked you to commission a new song with local dancers. Tell us about the piece and your collaborators.
I wrote a new song called “Take A Muna” in collaboration with a female Filipina-American DJ and producer, Gingee, who happens to be from Los Angeles. I met her last year and it just seems fitting to feature local California artists in both the music and performance. Jae Teosico (Barangay Dance company) and Stephanie Herrera (Kariktan Dance Company), who are both Filipino folk dancers from San Francisco will be dancing with me and my Toronto crew for the piece. So it will be a Toronto x Los Angeles x San Francisco collaboration. I don’t think that has happened before so it will be a first for us and for our communities to unite in one performance piece.
Listen to a preview of “Take a Muna”:
California is home to the largest Filipino community outside of the Philippines. It is only right to feature local California artists. I’m glad they all agreed to this performance. I strongly believe in collaboration because it empowers communities. My hope is we can manifest that strength in our show.
The song is about remembering to take a break from all the chaos in life. Filipinos are one of the most hardworking and kindest people on earth. Some of them work double jobs just to make ends meet and because they feel responsible to do so. I have experienced it myself when I was new in Canada. I take pride in those Filipino virtues. But sometimes, Filipinos need to be reminded that they deserve to take a rest too and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Life is too short. The song is written both in Tagalog and Cebuano with a “Tag-Lish” play of words from the Filipino phrase “teka muna”, which means “wait a minute or in a while”. In addition, Jae and Stephanie will be dancing to my song SIGE in the first part of the show. I wanted to give them the spotlight in their own locality. I’m excited to see what they will do. I rarely perform this song and this will also be the first time that I am performing it with dancers.
Tell us a bit about your creative process.
My creative process is not linear at all. Sometimes it starts with words then music, sometimes it is the beat that moves me to write. My inspiration is mostly drawn from my own experiences. For the most part, it’s all catharsis and introspection. I also like criticizing my own culture, sometimes with humor and sarcasm. Literature is also a source of inspiration for me. For example, the lyrics to World Gong Crazy has a lot of references to Jose Rizal’s and Lualhati Bautista’s novels. I wrote the song KaNaDyan in Balagtasan format to symbolize the tension between the dual identities of being Filipino immigrant to a foreign land (Balagtasan is a Filipino debate in poetic verses). So it all really depends on what I want to write about. The hardest part about creating something new is deciding if it is good enough to be heard by people or not. It’s scary. I’m a little insecure about my writing so I have to have a second or third ear to listen to it first as reassurance. I’m blessed to have Alexander Junior, my mentor and producer, be that ear. I trust his judgment.
What are you looking forward to for this performance?
It is one of our biggest shows yet, let alone outside the comfort of home in Toronto, Canada. I’m excited to see what San Francisco audiences are like. Also, I would like to see Filipinos in the crowd in as much as I want to see a very diverse audience. I think it is through music and the arts, in general, that we can bridge differences between cultures. The future is intersectional so I’m looking forward to the intersection of colors.
Han Han opens the concert on July 15 at 2 p.m. with Anoushka Shankar Land of Gold at Stern Grove Festival.