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Rising Asian artists perform at St. Albert's Plaza Series

The professional musicians are connecting Canadians to the past and present beauty of Asian culture and heritage

Patrons attending the Arden Theatre’s Plaza Series commonly see musicians playing a six-string or 12-string guitar. But until now they have never watched a musician play a contemporary guzheng, a traditional 21-string Chinese zither. 

Erica Dee Mah, a Yukon based singer-songwriter-storyteller is the opening act for the series’ Thursday, July 18 concert at St. Albert Place Plaza. 

She released two albums, The Sargasso Season (2022) and Paper Wealth (2024) with compositions that explore her Chinese-Canadian identity across several generations. She composed original music for the guzheng and writes about her ancestors’ transoceanic journey, the racism Chinese immigrants faced, and the roots they planted in a new country. 

“For Sargasso Season I read my grandfather’s memoirs. He tells the story of my great-great grandfather’s immigration by steamship and the discrimination he experienced. He eventually settled in Cranbrook and worked for the railroad his entire life,” said Mah. 

Although the album was recorded and released during the pandemic, some of the folk-roots songs were composed during Mah’s early years attempting to master the guzheng. Despite the compositions' shortcomings, their originality and haunting beauty captured national attention. 

Buoyed by the initial success, she released Paper Wealth. This collection was also written on the guzheng and reflected Chinese-Canadian cultural identity across generations. It was prompted by the date July 1, 2023, the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the day Canada prohibited Chinese immigration. 

While writing songs for Paper Wealth, Mah took stock about the many who endured a long journey to citizenship and an even longer journey to social acceptance over the past century. 

“This album was broader instrumentally and I was able to incorporate more traditional elements. The traditional guzheng melodic form is fluid and there’s not a lot of repetitive rhythm. I played more with the song writing form. Both albums do explore the theme of Chinese-Canadian identity. But by picking up the instrument as an adult, it led me down a path of questioning more about my heritage.” 

Raised in Smithers, British Columbia, Mah grew up studying the classical piano but started writing folk-roots music at an early age. Still today, the singer-songwriter credits her early classical training with influencing her current compositions. 

In 2000, she moved to Vancouver and enrolled at the University of British Columbia receiving an undergraduate degree in agricultural sciences and food security. She opted instead to be a youth worker and indulged herself part-time in music. 

Eager to learn more about her father’s cultural history, she took guzheng lessons at Burnaby’s Crystal Mall. 

“There’s a large Chinese community in Burnaby and it was a great opportunity to learn another instrument. 

By 2014, the musician moved up to the Yukon, a place where the snowy landscape is stunning and it feels like home she said. 

“I draw a lot of inspiration from nature and the guzheng in particular comes from a type of meditation. In lots of songs you hear water sounds, birds chirping or clouds rolling over mountains. It influences how I write lyrically and creates these peaceful moments.” 

The Gailan Ensemble will headline this concert celebrating Chinese-Canadian music. Led by flutist Jiajia Li, the chamber ensemble is made up of Alberta’s finest Chinese musicians playing ancient instruments made of silk and bamboo. The members’ experiences range from Chinese opera and Chinese orchestra to classical, jazz and pop. 

The concert at 5 St. Anne Street starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $18.75 or $150 for a table for six. Call 780-459-1542 or go online at 



Anna Borowiecki

About the Author: Anna Borowiecki

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