30 Minutes with Han Han
with Han Han
In her explosive music video World Gong Crazy, HAN HAN is a vision in ethnic-inspired garb; a regal figure rapping the story of the diaspora in Filipino and Bisaya. All it took for the single to take fire was its first few seconds; the heavy beat of the snare drum, the twinkling of the kulintang, and a flash of Han Han and crew in full regalia; she’s a queen amongst other gilded fan-wielding queens. And while echoes heralding the arrival of the best incarnation of modern Filipino tribal music were heard round the internet, the entire effort is anchored on a noble cause. Having migrated to Canada with her family back in 2006 and working full-time as a nurse, Haniely Pableo’s art revolves around forging connections to Filipino culture and navigating the tensions between migrant identities.
When I released the album back in 2014, I didn’t really consider myself an artist.
I was a nurse and only doing music on the side. I didn’t aspire to be a rap star. Most of the songs in the album were a product of jamming sessions with my producers, who I had met when I dropped into a poetry workshop at a Filipino center in 2008. Everything spiraled from there. It started with me just hanging out with them and then we eventually made music. My producers (who are from DATU) do hip hop. I wanted to do a different kind of music; wanted to infuse gongs and put poetry on top of it. When it got picked up by EMI UK, my producers were like, “maybe there’s something here.”
I was called a “fob” in my first year as a student—fresh off the boat. It’s a derogatory term. That’s what triggered me to write the lyrics for “World Gong Crazy”. At the time, I didn’t know what that meant, so I smiled. There’s a divide between the Filipinos who were born in the Philippines and those who were born in Canada, and I didn’t know that this tension existed. When I learned about it, I said “Fuck! I should have said something!” Somebody literally looked at me as if I wasn’t her equal because I was new to the country.
It’s different when you migrate when you’re young and when you’re already in your 20s. You already have an idea of who you are, what you are, and where you’re from. I was already 21 when I moved. When you go to another country, there’s always this tension of identity. The colonial mentality is everywhere. It’s like we don’t like who we are, like we’re not enough. We have to be somebody else to be amazing. When I was in Canada, I felt all that and I was trying to explore all these questions. I used to be so active in social activism for migrant workers, and protests. That experience influenced my music. Our stories needed to be told. The narrative of the Filipino immigrant is not really in the Canadian fabric. I find that people [in the Philippines] don’t appreciate what we have and how immigrants are being represented in the diaspora. We’re the second largest minority in Toronto itself and yet we’re invisible.
I met a lot of artists who were born and raised in Canada and they’re the ones searching for a connection to their heritage. Their way of connecting to the Filipino in them is through its art, like the kulintang and the dances. I think through meeting those people, it’s inspired me to [reach] an understanding of who we are as a people; that we are enough. That’s why I also write in Filipino. Because if I wrote in English, I would just sound like everybody else. The album is self-titled too. So if it’s going to be called Han Han, then it has to be Han Han.
‘World Gong Crazy’:
We didn’t know that “World Gong Crazy” would go that crazy. I was actually so over it. We did the video in 2015 and it was just sitting there ’til it came out a year later. But it’s good timing—the world IS going crazy. There’s the Trump administration, and all these issues of racism in North America. It totally fits.
We actually got criticized for the video. People said we were “bastardizing culture”, how it was cultural appropriation. Of course there are purists, but then what is culture, really? It isn’t static. It evolves over time. We as a group respect tradition. We make time and effort to learn it. We didn’t just take it from the internet and make it our own. Most of the people in our group have a history in folk dances. Alexander Junior, my producer, took time in Mindanao to learn about gongs and how to make them. We invited the T’boli to come to Toronto—that’s where I met Maria Todi, the founder of the School of Living Traditions in Lake Sebu. The people who are part of the group aren’t just about making this hip or cool. I’m open to critique for sure. But if you must critique, you must critique with fairness. Critique is good, it triggers conversation. One girl from Maranao criticized us for [our use of] singkil, that it was an insult to their culture. But that wasn’t the intention. Our intention was to elevate it so people could connect with it. From there, it’s the spectator’s responsibility to dig in. We’re not educators, we’re just here to inspire. As artists, our role is to express and I’m not going to apologize for the way we expressed ourselves.
On the cultural
influences of her
We love singkil. Traditionally, it’s a wedding dance for the bride and the groom, but we wanted to make it feminist. Instead of the bride and groom, we put queens; five queens with fans like swords. We don’t need kings. It’s a neo-interpretation of singkil and we’re not claiming it to be traditional. We’re drawing something from it and making it our own, making it Filipino-Canadian. People say we’re not “Filipinizing” it enough, that we’re not doing it the right way. What does that even mean? There are so many pockets in connecting to our culture, and this is ours. When we did the pictorial for my album, I wanted everyone [involved] to be Filipino. I wanted to support the emerging artists. When I envisioned it, I thought, I’m from Cebu so it has to be a reference from there. I wanted to feel like a god; a child-god. So, how about “Sta. Niña”? Filipinos can be so conservative so it could have been blasphemous, but it was executed beautifully. For me, it was a statement. Our god has always been considered masculine. But then when you look at our indigenous cultures, like the babaylan, they’re females; they’re two- spirited. We’re trying to decolonize, layer by layer.
We ask Han Han
to give us a playlist of other Filipino diasporic artists based in North America.
I’m just a face, really. I never did it alone. It was always with Bayanihan, a group comprised of artists, academics, social workers, etc. It’s a teamwork for sure, a movement. DATU, Hataw, and me, we’re just one element. My work is almost always collaboration. Maybe that’s why we’re effective as a group, because it’s a community effort. All of us are drawn [together] just for the goal of showcasing Filipino culture. It’s like a family. I’m just a bridge, really, and now everybody can cross.