Erica Dee Mah’s music is a beautiful expression of how the past connects to our present.
“I hope that when people hear this music,” says Whitehorse-based singer-songwriter Erica Dee Mah of her album The Sargasso Season, “they feel transported to a borderless world, where sounds travel across oceans and return, changed in surprisingly beautiful ways.” Which is exactly the effect Mah’s compositions (initially improvised compositions on the Chinese harp guzheng) have on me. Like many people, the pandemic prompted Mah to busy her hands and mind by learning how to play the guzheng. “I never expected that learning an instrument would help me feel connected to my Chinese heritage,” she explains on the album’s Bandcamp liner notes. Unbeknownst to Mah, The Sargasso Season opened a gate to her history and heritage in unexpected, eclectic ways.
At first, it’s vague who’s perspective she sings from on “Snow Angels” — hers or her ancestors — when she says “I’m more river than ocean / I’m more land than sea / I’m a far cry from what I dreamed I’d be.” As the contemplative tune unfurls and the guzheng’s unmistakable tone pings like awakened memories, it’s clear she’s imagining her great-grandparents’ journey to Canada: “The sunny bow, steady stern, starboard smiles / Wave goodbye, we’ll be leaving for a while.” On “Cedar,” the guzheng sounds like pedal steel, underpinning the song’s neo-folk sensitivity; “The Canyon,” with its finger-snapping rhythm, feels like a modern-day coffee-house standard that’s been refreshed.
Far from being solely a memory album or a study in how a traditional instrument interplays with contemporary composition, The Sargasso Season is a complex, delicate record that exists on multiple planes and across many times. Borderless yet bound to the systemic racism, discrimination, and oppression her ancestors faced when they arrived in Canada, Erica Dee Mah’s music is a beautiful expression of how the past connects to our present.
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