B.C. family folksinger Ginalina has achieved many milestones in her musical career.
She’s recorded five albums and collected three JUNO nominations. In addition, she’s won fans across Canada and in Asia by singing and writing songs in three languages: English, French, and Mandarin.
But not until her newly released disc, Going Back, did the long-time Vancouver resident ever attempt to sing in Taiwanese (Tâi-gí,臺語). Her parents communicated in this language in their home country before moving to Toronto in the 1970s from the Kaohsiung area of Taiwan.
“My parents spoke to me in Mandarin,” Ginalina tells Pancouver by phone. “They spoke Taiwanese to each other. Then I spoke English.”
She says that she had “minimal spoken Mandarin” through her teenage years. In her 20s, she improved by studying at Nanjing University and later working in Taiwan.
“That’s also when I started writing my first Mandarin songs,” Ginalina reveals. “The lyrics were much less expressive than anything I could write in English. Nonetheless, it was really exciting for me to start exploring this other part of my identity.”
Her new album marks a departure from the North American family folk songs that have become her hallmark. Going Back is a collection of modern remixes of folk songs from the Far East, supplemented with English-language lyrics.
It was born in the pandemic when she spent a great deal of time talking to her parents about their roots. She also spoke to them about songs that they had listened to growing up.
“The way this project came about is very personal,” Ginalina says. “But when other people listen, I want these songs to fully belong to them.”
Stories from forgotten lands
The album’s opening track, “Going Back”, refers to making connections with the stories of ancestors.
The lyrics set the stage for what’s to come by mentioning where grandma’s dreams began and stories from forgotten lands.
“A big part of that song is in English, talking about going back to your roots, back to your culture, back to the stories you grew up with,” Ginalina says.
To her, this is valuable, important, emotional, and surprising.
She will perform songs from the new album at 7 p.m. on Wednesday (November 30) at the Vancouver Playhouse as part of the Jade Music Festival. Ginalina will also speak at the Annex at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday (December 1) on the elevation of Chinese-language music in Canada.
One of Ginalina’s most poignant moments in the recording studio came after she sang the whimsical and jaunty “Diu Diu Deng (Taiwanese Train Song)”. The lyrics refer to the sound of moisture falling on trains rushing through mountain tunnels.
She says that “Diu Diu Deng (Taiwanese Train Song)” reveals how the island is influenced by its tropical environment. Singing the song reminded her of when she rode a train in the beautiful mountains of Taiwan.
“I had some tears because it was so significant to me to have learned a language that my parents grew up speaking but, in effect, had really been forgotten in my life until that moment,” Ginalina states.
Listen to Ginalina’s version of “Diu Diu Deng (Taiwanese Train Song)”.
Poetic translations improved flow
She says that linguistically, Taiwanese dances around in her mouth.
“I love the way it feels when I form the words,” she adds. “The syllables and tones bound around freely and feel ‘earthy’, in a way.”
The singer admits to feeling daunted in taking on this song. Therefore, she worked hard on the pronunciations and melodies before embarking on her own interpretations. Her parents offered valuable feedback.
For some tracks, she wrote “poetic translations”. This meant staying as close to the original wording as possible while ensuring that verses flowed properly. Examples include “Jasmine Flower and “The Snail and the Orioles”.
“And, on other songs, such as ‘Diu Diu Deng (Taiwanese Train Song)’, ‘Two Tigers’, and ‘Gong Xi’, I decided instead to bring in a new verse or two, or a bridge in English—as if it were one continuation of the song,” Ginalina says.
The songs feature accordion, banjo, guitar, lap-steel guitar, mandolin, percussion, and ukulele. To add an Asian flair, Ginalina invited friends from the Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble to play the erhu and zither.
“It really balances out the vision of this album, which is presenting these Asian Far East traditional folk songs, but in this kind of re-imagined West Coast folk style,” she says.
“So, I think it’s really fun,” she continues. “The children in the audiences will enjoy it because I’ve picked songs that will be really singable and danceable.”
Album is not just for kids
She also believes that the arrangements will entertain older family members, who may feel nostalgic hearing songs from their home country.
“I hope that the music will be interesting for listeners on a number of levels, and I know people will connect with it in their ways.”
In closing, Ginalina calls Going Back a tribute to her heritage and the childhood of her parents. And she emphasizes that this is not a collection of Chinese-Canadian songs only intended for Chinese Canadians. Rather, she calls it an “honest exploration of identity”.
“The content is specific to my journey, but hopefully the concept will inspire people to go on their own journeys,” she says. “It opens the doors for other people to explore their own identities and to appreciate other people’s backgrounds and heritage through music.”
Ginalina will perform songs from Going Back at 7 p.m. on Wednesday (November 30) at the Vancouver Playhouse as part of the Jade Music Festival. She will also speak at the Annex at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday (December 1) at a forum on the elevation of Chinese-language music in Canada.
Ginalina will perform songs from her new album with the Chinese Music Ensemble at 2 p.m. on February 26, 2023 at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. Tickets are available here.