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Guzheng and cello create unique chamber-folk music for the songs of Erica Dee Mah

When Erica Mah sings the opening line of her song Cedar, the tune is reminiscent of a Carter Family classic.
Erica Mah (left) on the guzheng and Darcy McCord on cello will appear at the Rivercity Stage on March 17. Photo contributed

When Erica Mah sings the opening line of her song Cedar, the tune is reminiscent of a Carter Family classic.

You might expect to hear typical folk song accompaniment of acoustic guitar or banjo and fiddle. What comes next instead sounds momentarily exotic and unusual before the intricate arrangement and deft musicianship, along with Mah’s pristine vocals, sweeps the listener away on a journey.

Raised in Smithers and now based in Whitehorse, Mah does indeed play the acoustic guitar in the singer-songwriter tradition, but it’s her use of the guzheng accompanied by Darcy McCord on cello, that makes her latest songs so extraordinary.

The guzheng is a Chinese plucked zither or harp that dates back roughly 2,500 years. Modern instruments are typically a bit over five feet long and have between 21 and 26 strings, Mah’s has 23. She began studying the instrument in 2011 but only incorporated it fully into her songwriting practice with her 2022 album The Sargasso Season.

“I never expected that learning an instrument would help me feel connected to my Chinese heritage, but much like learning a language, it has. Many songs on this album were inspired by family stories and the history of my Chinese ancestors who came to Canada at the turn of the 20th century. They worked for railroad companies, ran general stores and laundries, and helped establish early Chinese-Canadian communities. Their children (my grandparents) belonged to a small group of Canadian-born Chinese who were raised against a backdrop of discriminatory laws, and systems of segregation and oppression.”

Mah writes about transoceanic journeys, Chinese-Canadian identity across generations, and finding connection in new landscapes. The songs range in style from sparse and haunting indie singer-songwriter, to soaring chamber pop, with neo-classical twists and turns. Working with producer and sound engineer, Jordy Walker, Mah created a dreamy new orchestral folk album that stays grounded in her personal songwriting style. Exclaim! Magazine called The Sargasso Season “a transfixing orchestral-folk album full of perseverance and hope.”

Campbell River audiences will get to hear the duo of Erica Dee Mah and Darcy McCord on cello at the intimate theatre of Rivercity Stage on March 17.

Highway 19 Concerts is supported by the City of Campbell River & CR Live Streets, the BC Touring Council & BC Arts Council, and the Anchor Inn & Suites. Tickets are available through the Tidemark Theatre box-office for $24 plus taxes and fees. Teen tickets are only $5 and kids are free when accompanied by a paying adult.

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