Han Han doesn't enjoy performing her new album. "These songs are physically and mentally exhausting," she says. The emotional intensity on her self-titled debut album is palpable even to those of us who don't understand all the lyrics. The songs, which blend Philippine languages Tagalog and Cebuano with English, cover a range of ambitious thematic territory, from learning to laugh at loss to the formation of personal identity.
What Han Han calls a "typical Filipino immigrant experience" in Canada provides a unifying lens on the subjects she confronts on the album. At age 7, Han was separated from her mother, who moved to Kuwait and then Hong Kong as a domestic helper. Han turned 21 before they reconnected in Toronto where her mother immigrated under Canada's Live-in Caregiver Program. Han Han would find training as a registered nurse and work in the operating room of an Ontario hospital.
In her music, Han Han contemplates how one's sense of self is challenged and negotiated in unfamiliar contexts. "When you go to another country, you think you know yourself, but you also start to form another identity. It can be confusing," she says. Her album is a documentation of how she's tried to resolve those tensions. She acknowledges that as an immigrant, it's a struggle that never fades away: "You're connected to both sides."
I hope to be telling this story for the rest of my life: I met Han Han in 2008 at the Toronto Reference Library, where I was tutoring conversational English. The conversation (between my student and I) was boring, forced, for the sake of the lesson. Han sat at the same table. Tired of hearing us yammer, she interrupted. We talked. As I learned about her, I suggested she check out the Kapisanan Philippine Centre. It happened to be where my band, Times Neue Roman, with Alexander Junior, rehearsed. It was also (still is) a cultural hub and talent incubator for Toronto-based Filipino/a artists (and their non-Filipino collaborators).
Han Han popped into Kapisanan's Kensington market basement location and dropped into a poetry class. She was a natural. At some point, a year or so later, she opened for us (Times Neue Roman) at an art show. Her flow was like nothing I'd ever heard before. I was like, "who are you? That was incredible." It was. She reminded me that I'd told her about Kapisanan. Since then I have taken as much credit as I possibly can for the beautiful music she makes. ("I discuvved her, and now she's makin' gold rekkeds, gold" etc.)
My bandmate Alexander Junior (Styrofoam Ones, Santa Guerrilla) produced Han's album with Rudy Boquila (Thrust, Frank N Dank). The two longtime staples in Toronto's indie and hip hop scenes had been looking for opportunities to reconnect with their Filipino roots through music.
Han Han is unsigned. Her album will come out on September 12 via Soundcloud. It was funded through a grant from the Ontario Arts Council. Two of the songs have been picked up by EMI publishing in the UK. EMI's catalogues classify the songs as "urban tribal." The music mixes funk and hip-hop, with Philippine tribal gong music. Though her vocals accord to many of the stylistic conventions of rap, Han was never actually exposed to much hip-hop; She cites Nirvana and Bon Jovi as the bands that commanded most of the real estate on her bedroom wall. But if form follows content, then perhaps it's not surprising that Han's natural flow and cadence are so reminiscent of traditional rap; it is a rebel music made from a bricolage of sounds and influences, and from a place of marginalization. Like early hip-hop, Han's sound has the quality of feeling at once animated and agitated. Her demeanour slides fluidly from cheerful to rascally to warm to serious. Performing such complex emotional expressions in life and in art does sound exhausting. Let's hope Han can maintain the energy to let the world hear something so raw and appropriate to its social moment.