Lowhi is unlike almost any other musician on the planet. The Los Angeles-based R&B and low-fi singer writes his emotionally laden, angst-filled compositions in two languages—English and Mandarin. These verses bounce off one another in tandem in a cross-continental mix that defies easy categorization.
At an October 20 panel discussion at the Jade Music Fest in Vancouver, Lowhi talked about how this came about.
“I was born in the Bay Area in the U.S. and my family moved back to China when I was six,” Lowhi said. “I lived in Beijing between six and 18, but I went to an American school.”
He grew up speaking Mandarin with his family. Yet after he returned to America, he did not include this language in his songs for a long time. In those days, Lowhi felt that the best way to reach a global market would be singing in English.
Moreover, he felt insecure about his Mandarin. This came after a Taiwanese friend had told him that she didn’t like his accent.
“I think as artists, our greatest insecurities become our greatest strength,” Lowhi advised other musicians at the event.
As a result of his friend’s comment, he mistakenly thought that his Mandarin had an American twang. Months later she told him that this wasn’t the case at all. She simply didn’t like hearing the Beijing accent.
Nowadays, Lowhi firmly believes that artists must look inward and ask themselves in which ways they are unique.
“Where can I bring something different?” Lowhi asked. “Where can I sharpen that difference to its finest edge so that when I bring it to the stage, it’s undeniable?”
He certainly did that in his performance later that evening at the Jade Music Fest.
Watch Lowhi perform “Airport” in English and Mandarin.
Lowhi hones in on uniqueness
In a five-song bilingual set featuring songs from his “Come Back Home” EP, Lowhi delivered something unmistakeably original. His otherworldly sound wasn’t entirely North American, nor was it Chinese, in songs like “Cry”, “Airport”, and “Amnesia”.
Lowhi’s music has been featured on Disney (American Born Chinese), Netflix (Wu Assassins), and HBO Max (Warrior). He emphasized that artists must perform at a very high standard to break through. He also noted that this is essential to bring audiences into a state of euphoria without even thinking about the language that they’re hearing.
“The fact that you’re speaking a different language shouldn’t be your only selling point,” Lowhi declared.
He then praised the Jade Music Fest for seeing the potential for this new genre of music, mixing East and West, even though it’s not immediately visible.
“It takes that belief [in] something you don’t see in front of you yet, and knowing that it can develop and grow into something incredible,” Lowhi said.
Watch Lowhi’s video for “Cry”.
Jade Music Fest promotes artists
Now in its second year, the Jade Music Fest aims to elevate Chinese-language music in Vancouver and abroad. Created by the Society of We Are Canadians Too (which also owns Pancouver), the festival showcased more than a dozen musicians of Asian heritage, mostly from Canada, between October 18 to 20.
The chief organizer, Charlie Wu, said in the panel discussion that the Jade Music Fest is in a “capacity-building stage”. Part of that involves encouraging some Canadian musicians of Asian ancestry to sing in Chinese languages if they’re comfortable doing this.
He described this as a “movement”.
“We want to make sure that other festivals see you and they would love to invite you because they see the opportunity of bringing a different type of act to enrich their own festival,” Wu said.
Publisher cites parallels between SWSX and Jade
Creative BC, a provincial government-funded agency that invests in the creative sector, is one of the supporters of the Jade Music Fest. Two other members of the panel, NEXT Magazine publisher Michael Hollett and B’in Music artist manager Eva Chen, said government support is very helpful in popularizing Chinese-language music in Canada.
Hollett drew parallels between the Jade Music Fest’s emphasis on supporting local musicians of Chinese ancestry and the people who started the SXSW (South by Southwest) Conference & Festivals. He said that they began by wanting to promote the music scene in Austin, Texas.
“That scene became interesting enough to the larger world, so then it grew,” Hollett stated. “So, it was really about being regional and local, in a funny way, and it became this international phenomena.”
At its core, SXSW was rooted in its authenticity, Hollett added. And he sees a similar authenticity in what the Jade Music Fest aims to do in Vancouver.
“You’ve identified that kernel of a concept that’s authentic and real, which is creating this bridge between Chinese music and English music,” Hollett told Wu on the panel. “And I think the concept makes so much sense. It’s sort of crazy that it hasn’t happened. I mean, there’s such a huge market, just over there [in Asia].”
Watch the video for Xiao Bing Chih’s “Dear Stranger”.
Record executive cites complexity of Mandarin lyrics
Meanwhile, through a Mandarin-language interpreter, Chen pointed out that the artistic concepts behind Mandarin-language lyrics are very important in Asia. As an example, she cited Taiwanese singer and Jade Music Fest performer Xiao Bing Chih’s “Dear Stranger”, which he co-wrote with lyricist David Ke.
“The lyrics can be translated directly to ‘we gaze at each other from opposite zodiac signs,’ but it doesn’t make sense [in English],” Chen said.
She revealed that a Mandarin word describes two zodiac signs at an angle of 180 degrees, facing in opposite directions but which share common essentials. She disclosed that this carries so much nuance and meaning in Mandarin, but cannot be conveyed in the English language.
Chen was in the room when Xiao Bing Chih and Ke decided to embed this word into the Mandarin lyrics of “Dear Stranger”.
“This single word is elevating the whole song to a new level,” Chen said. “And when the song was launched, it really resonated with the listeners.”
Chen also expressed regret that Coco Lee was forced to sing her Oscar-winning “A Love Before Time” in English at the Academy Awards rather than in her native Mandarin.
“It’s a pity because singers should be able to sing in their own language, be authentic, be understood, and be heard,” Chen stated.
Wu, in fact, encourages Canadian musicians to feel confident enough to sing in Chinese languages in this country. He also wants to help them reach audiences in Asia.
“Artists here with multiple language skills are able to tell the stories and make non-Chinese-speaking audiences understand,” he said.
Coco Lee sings her Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon song in Mandarin.
Lessons from Ang Lee
In this regard, Wu compared these musicians to filmmaker Ang Lee. According to Wu, Lee had spent enough time in North America so that by the time he made the authentically strongly Chinese film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he knew how to package it. That’s why it resonated so strongly with western audiences.
Wu added that Canadian musical artists should be very proud of having the skillset to engage in cross-cultural communication. In this regard, they can make music that transcends cultural differences just as Ang Lee and Bruce Lee have already demonstrated this on the big screen.
The Jade Music Fest organizer noted that Chinese-speaking musicians in Canada have not been able to do this in the Chinese language in their home country. Wu said the goal is to give Chinese-speaking youths the confidence and the opportunity to become part of the Canadian music industry in Chinese languages.
“Because everyone sees Canada as an English-speaking country or French-speaking country, anything to do with Chinese language is seen to be foreign—‘It’s only for your community; it’s only for Asia; it’s nothing to do with Canada’. And so, we want to make sure that people see this as a focus,” Wu said. “This is a part of Canada and that representation is important.”
The moderator, Burnaby-Lougheed NDP MLA Katrina Chen, then asked Hollett if there’s potential to achieve Wu’s goals through the Jade Music Fest.
Hollett responded that two Canadian music stars, Jessie Reyes and Nellie Furtado, have already sung in Spanish and Portuguese, respectively. And this resonated deeply with their fans because they were showing authentic sides of themselves. He also noted that Celine Dion embraces her French-Canadian identity and often sings in French, expanding her global appeal.
Victoria-born Nellie Furtado sings “Força” in English and Portuguese.
Personal stories resonate for Lowhi and others
“At the end of the day, more and more, we’re looking for authenticity from artists,” Hollett said. “And I think that for a lot of artists of Asian background, that’s what makes you unique. It’s tapping into that story that’s going to resonate with people who aren’t from that background.
“It opens a whole window to us,” the publisher continued. “It’s that personal story. And that’s what resonates. That’s what you have. The funny thing is: what makes someone different is what makes you compelling.”
Lowhi pointed out that his personality can change when he switches from English to Mandarin.
“People say when I speak Chinese, I’m a lot more polite-sounding,” he said.
From what he’s seen in Los Angeles, Lowhi is convinced that Asian American music is going to be different than Asian music. He even suggested that Asian American music may “almost become a different dialect” because of the way lyrics are structured.
Because of this, he advised North American musicians who speak Mandarin to stop worrying about writing music like they’re in China.
“Maybe 10, 20, 30 years from now, we’ll look at something like this [the Jade Music Fest] and say, ‘Wow, this was the birth of Chinese Canadian music that’s different from Chinese American music. It’s different from Chinese music,’ ” Lowhi said.
“For any artists out there trying to write in Mandarin, I encourage to just begin,” he recommended. “You might find something really interesting and different in how your style and your musical influence meet the Mandarin language—not trying to force or fit your music into the Mandarin language.”