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Touring Indigenous music from Taiwan in Canada—the lessons of Kanatal

Kanatal
In 2022, Kanatal became the first Taiwanese Indigenous band to go on tour in Canada.

Last September when the band Kanatal  walked onto the stage in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery, it marked a milestone. This was the culmination of the first Canadian tour by a group of Indigenous musicians from Taiwan.

After performing in several Canadian cities, the four members—guitarist Masaw Ali, keyboard player Suana Emuy Cilangasay, singer Abus Tanapima, and drummer Vangacu Kalevuwan—were eager to impress a crowd that had gathered for the signature event of TAIWANfest Vancouver.

When they burst into their only English-language song, “Peace”, audience members could feel the musicians’ fervour for environmental justice. It was a reminder of how Indigenous people around the world have been at the forefront of struggles to protect the planet from the ravages of industrialization.

“The world is very chaotic because of human greed,” Suana Emuy Cilangasay told one journalist after arriving in Canada. “Human greed causes a lot of environmental issues and conflict around the world—international conflict—but also localized conflict, such as within your own families and interpersonal relationships.”

Taiwan and Canada share intriguing similarities when it comes to Indigenous peoples.

In Taiwan, the national government has officially recognized 16 tribes, up from a dozen a couple of years ago, while several others still seek recognition. According to the government, there were 571,816 officially recognized Indigenous people in Taiwan in 2019, accounting for 2.42 percent of the population.

Meanwhile in Canada, the Canadian Constitution recognizes three groups of Aboriginal peoples: First Nations, Inuit and Métis. About 1.8 million people in Canada—five percent of the country’ss population—identify as an Aboriginal person, according to the 2021 census.

Masaw Ali, Suana Emuy Cilangasay, Abus Tanapima, and Vangacu Kalevuwan
Masaw Ali, Abus Tanapima, Suana Emuy Cilangasay, and Vangacu Kalevuwan played several Canadian venues.

Kanatal founder played in Canada before

Taiwanese videographer Thaikung Rusegeseg accompanied Kanatal to record their performance in downtown Vancouver. He also captured images of the band’s previous shows at the Vancouver and Mission folk festivals, a Small World Music event in Toronto, and the Three Fires Homecoming Pow Wow and Traditional Gathering in Hagersville, Ontario.

During their Canadian tour, Kanatal visited the Indigenous-managed Woodland Cultural Centre. It houses more than 50,000 artifacts in Brantford, Ontario. Rusegeseg plans to turn this footage into a documentary, which could be released later this year.

Dr. Scott Harrison was among those who was keenly interested in Kanatal’s visit to Canada. He’s Senior Program Manager, Engaging Asia at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada in Vancouver. In addition, he’s a historian who studies the international Indigenous movement, particularly in Asia.

“I was quite excited to meet with them and hear some of their stories of what their experiences were in Canada,” Harrison says. “It sounds like from what I heard from them when we met, it was an eye-opening experience for all of them.”

The founder of Kanatal, Suana Emuy Cilangasay, had performed at a previous TAIWANfest event in Vancouver in 2019. That’s where he learned of the Canadian custom of offering an acknowledgement at public events that the activities were taking place on unceded Indigenous territory. Upon returning to Taiwan, he introduced this concept at one of his shows.

Harrison says that Suana Emuy Cilangasay and the other members of Kanatal were thrilled by their reception in Canada.

“They were, like, ‘Wow, people are just so interested in our music and our culture. They’re so welcoming. We can be so proud of what we’re doing,’ ” Harrison recalls.

Scott Harrison and Kanako Uzawa
Global Indigenous movement scholars Dr. Scott Harrison and Dr. Kanako Uzawa met Kanatal. Ainu Today photos.

Kanatal members met Ainu scholar

Moreover the Kanatal members discovered that they weren’t judged harshly if they didn’t speak their Indigenous languages very well.

“They realized that’s the same with a lot of Indigenous people in Canada—and that’s okay,” Harrison says. “Part of the path is revitalization of language and engaging with youth. And you can do this not just at Indigenous-only events, but you can go to folk festivals. You can partner with other Indigenous people across Canada, which they were doing.”

Coincidentally, multilingual Ainu scholar and advocate Dr. Kanako Uzawa was in Vancouver when Kanatal was in Canada. She’s the founder of Ainu Today. It’s an English-language website focusing on issues of concern to the Ainu, who are the Indigenous people of Hokkaido and other lands surrounding the Sea of Okhotsk.

Uzawa accompanied Harrison on his visit to a home in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond, where Kanatal was staying. And he witnessed the shared connection that Uzawa had with the four band members—something that Uzawa recently spoke about with Harrison.

In particular, she talked with Harrison about one of the songs that Suana Emuy Cilangasay had sung. It was composed by an Indigenous man for his wife. That man was later executed by the Kuomintang government, which had put Taiwan under martial law.

“She was, like, ‘If he had not written that song, no one would have remembered him.’ You can use art and song and music to pass down legacies of your culture and they can outlast you,” Harrison says.

Learn more about Kanatal.

Taiwan’s approach stands out in Asia 

Suana Emuy Cilangasay is of mixed Sakizayan and Amis ancestry. Ali was born to an Atayal mother and Chinese father. Kalevuan is Paiwan and Tanapima is of mixed Bunun and Amis heritage. Upon their return to Taiwan, they paused the Kanatal project to pursue their own careers.

Tanapina was recently nominated for prestigious Golden Melody Awards for Best Newcomer of the Year and Best Vocalist (Indigenous language). She’s eager for people to recognize her heritage and promised to keep it at the centre of her music in the future.

Kalevuwan has returned to his roots, encouraging the return of other young Paiwan to their traditional communities. He’s also helping an Indigenous DJ who’s coming to this year’s TAIWANfest celebrations in Canada.

In the meantime, Harrison describes Taiwan’s approach to Indigenous issues as “incredibly progressive” in comparison to other Asian countries. And he’s astonished that all of this has happened in a relatively short period of time since the lifting of martial law in 1987.

For example, the Taiwanese government has approved an Indigenous language development law, which guarantees the right to receive judicial documents and government notifications in one’s own language. There’s also a Council of Indigenous Peoples, which was created in 1996 to work to protect the rights and well-being of the Aboriginal people of Taiwan.

In addition, there are eight seats reserved in the 113-seat national assembly for Indigenous people, as well as guaranteed representation in local governments in six main cities.

This Asianometry video offers an overview of Taiwan’s Indigenous peoples.

Lots to learn in Canada

Harrison attributes the progress of Indigenous people in Taiwan, in part, to the modern international Indigenous movement. He notes that one of more influential international organizations is the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, which promotes land and cultural rights.

He’s also aware of more than a dozen trips by Taiwanese Indigenous people to Canada. These delegations have learned about efforts to revitalize Indigenous languages, promote more effective education, and use the Canadian courts to assert First Nations rights.

In addition, the delegations have learned how Canadian First Nations have pushed to obtain a share of tax revenues and recover traditional territory seized by federal and provincial governments.

“There’s a lot of shared learning going on,” Harrison says.

This is the second installment of Pancouver’s six-part series on Canada, the Netherlands, and Taiwan. Pancouver created this in partnership with Taiwan Insight, which is the online magazine of the Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham. Taiwan Insight has published different versions of the articles on its website. Follow Taiwan Insight on Twitter @UoNARI_Taiwan. Follow Pancouver @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.