Vancouver musician and environmentalist Van Lefan has recalibrated a core belief that she’s carried since childhood. Born in Taiwan, she immigrated at the age of 11 to Maple Ridge with her family.
“I lived my whole life being, like, ‘I am from Taiwan,’ ” Lefan tells Pancouver over Zoom.
But on a trip to the island nation last year, it really sank in on a visceral level that Indigenous tribes are truly the first peoples of Taiwan. It came while travelling to Taitung County, which includes traditional territory of the Paiwan people.
The Paiwan are one of 16 official tribes in Taiwan. While there, she recorded a music video for her song “The Lesson”, which speaks of mindfulness, compassion, and gratitude.
“Environmental issues cannot be addressed without addressing how colonialism is the problem,” Lefan says. “And the only way that we can restore connections to these lands is by listening to Indigenous people and learning their ways—and really honouring and respecting that. I think that’s what this trip was about for me.”
Watch Lefan’s offical music video for “The Lesson”.
In the video, Lefan strums her guitar and sings in a voice that reaches for the sky. She’s also seen frolicking around town and in nature, showing off the beauty of rural Taiwan.
Last summer, Lefan met the videographer, Tjaikung Rusegeseg (蕭子敬), while he was filming the Indigenous Taiwanese band Kanatal at TAIWANfest in Vancouver.
“I linked up with him because I wanted to do a music video in Taiwan when I was there,” she says. “I really like his video style.”
Lefan visits Indigenous villages
Lefan was aware that the members of Kanatal—Masaw Ali, Suana Emuy Cilangasay, Abus Tanapima, and Vangacu Kalevuwan—were inspired by the Indigenous cultural resurgence in Canada. They wanted to bring these ideas back to Taiwan.
As an example of this, Kalevuwan and Cilangasay organized a New Year’s Eve event last year. According to Lefan, they hoped to encourage young Paiwan people to return to Kalevuwan’s hometown in Taitung County.
“The village was getting run down,” Lefan says. “All the young people had left for work opportunities. It was mostly run by older folks.”
Cilangasay invited Lefan to attend the event. And once she and Rusegeseg arrived, the videogapher showed them around his village.
“Another friend took us to another Paiwan village to look at art work and explore the coast,” Lefan recalls. “And then we shot that video.”
Being of Han Chinese ancestry, Lefan has always been aware that her family roots went back to the mainland.
“There’s no debating that,” she emphasizes. “We’re kind of different from a lot of white Canadians who are so convinced that they’re Canadian. They forget that they’re European.”
Video: Learn more about Kanatal in this video.
Here in B.C., Lefan has actively supported Indigenous land rights. She even recorded a music video, “Bodies of Water”, which features footage from the blockades at Ada’itsx (Fairy Creek). She spent a summer there on the front lines.
Now, she’s even more aware of how Indigenous peoples in different parts of the world have become empowered through cultural reconnections. At the same time, Lefan is very conscious of key differences between Canadian and Taiwanese history.
For example, the colonists to Taiwan were themselves colonized by Japan from 1895 to 1945.
“I am Taiwanese,” she acknowledges, “but I’m also Han Taiwanese. I’m technically a mainlander.”
Jade Music Festival concert on Granville Island
A year ago, Lefan released her debut full-length album, What Holds Us Together, in which she sings about her identity as a Taiwanese immigrant to Canada. Produced by Thomas Hoeller, the album also includes songs about environmental justice, ancestral knowledge, and healing.
Lefan wrote and sang all 11 tracks. They feature lyrics in English, Mandarin, and Taiwanese.
Watch “Bodies of Water” by Lefan
Currently, Lefan is working on a new EP and these songs will also include English, Mandarin, and possibly Taiwanese lyrics. She will play some of her new music on Saturday (May 20) at On the Rise—A Free Public Concert by Jade Music Festival.
The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Jade Music Festival last year to promote Vancouver as a production centre for Chinese-language music production.
One of the highlights on Lefan’s trip to Taiwan was performing in a popular Taipei music cafe called the Witch House. She played a show with Abus Tanapima, whom she met through Kanatal.
“It was really incredible,” Lefan says. “Family I hadn’t seen in 10 years came out to see it. It was really special.”
She also performed last year at the Music Talks live festival in Maple Ridge, which was where she grew up in Canada. “That was really fun, too.”
Nowadays, Lefan is engaging with different artforms. She’s building a sound installation for her music as part of a residency at What Lab in East Vancouver. In addition, she’s doing assistant sound design work for a Bard on the Beach theatrical production.
Lefan thinks of sound as immersive
Lefan also works at Lobe, which is a 4-D spatial sound studio on East Hastings Street in Vancouver. Lobe was built to enable sound to bounce around the room.
Next Sunday (May 21) from 6 to 9 p.m., Lefan and Sapphire Haze will be featured in Lobe’s first-ever Asian Heritage Month event, which is open to the public.
“When I made my album, I always thought of sound as a very immersive thing,” Lefan explains.
She then adds that it never made sense to her that music would only come from the left and right through speakers.
“So when I was making my album, we were trying to use production techniques to make the sound move around spatially,” Lefan says. “So, when I found out about this space, I thought ‘this is so perfect.’ ”
Jade Music Festival and CMHC – Granville Island present On the Rise—A Free Public Concert by Jade Music Festival from noon to 4 p.m. on Saturday (May 20) in Granville Island’s Public Market Courtyard. Van Lefan will play at noon, followed by DJ Chip$ and multilingual musicians Sophie Young and Iris Lee. On Sunday (May 21), Lefan and Sapphire Haze will be at Lobe Studio from 6 to 9 p.m. Tickets are available through Eventbrite. To learn more about Lefan, visit her website. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.