North·Profile

'Some kind of miracle': Friends of woman dying of cancer record album of her music

The Arctic-inspired songs of an Iqaluit-based biologist have been immortalized in a new album, released by friends and family who never even knew she wrote music.

‘This is a product of all our bonds and connections and shared love,’ says Iqaluit’s Siu-Ling Han

'I really like trying to build images with words, and I find the Arctic is so full of incredibly powerful images,' says Siu-Ling Han. (Madeline Cole)

Iqaluit's Siu-Ling Han has been scribbling song lyrics and strumming melodies for much of her life, but few of her friends and family knew that.

'Before I knew it, we were doing a studio recording,' says Siu-Ling Han. (submitted by Pierre Lecomte)
"I don't like being the centre of attention," admits the 53-year-old Han. "I don't bring guitars to parties."

Han was born in Germany, grew up in Montreal and Ottawa and is of Chinese descent, but for the past 20 years she's worked as a wildlife biologist based in Iqaluit. 

Many of her songs are shaped by her experiences with the people in the North as well as the vast winterscape she's explored with the dog team she's kept for almost two decades.

"I really like trying to build images with words and I find the Arctic is so full of incredibly powerful images," says Han.

To those who would show kindness, released last week, was recorded and produced in a few short months. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)
It wasn't until Han's ovarian cancer returned after a decade of remission, and she was told that she was dying, that she finally allowed her musical friends to talk her into sharing her work.

Recognizing the merits of her music, Han's friends decided to pool their efforts and produce a professional record featuring some of her best songs.

"I was kind of thinking one of those tabletop desk recorders," says Han. "Before I knew it, we were doing a studio recording."

'Far from ordinary'

Many of Han's songs are inspired by her experiences with the people in the North as well as the vast winterscape she’s explored with the dog team. (submitted by Tim Han)
To those who would show kindness, released last week, was recorded and produced in a few short months with help from members of Iqaluit music groups Jerry Cans, Tradeoffs and Kamaalukutaaq.

Convincing an introvert like Han to open up her songbook was not an easy task.

"I think she felt that they were just ordinary," says Pierre Lecomte, one of Han's friends and a musician formerly based in Iqaluit.

"They were far from ordinary," he adds.

"The songs were all much too good to not capture," says Rob Aube, an Iqaluit-based bass player who often plays with the Jerry Cans, and who's the project manager behind Han's album.

"It's rare to hear someone's original music and the lyrics are so thoughtful and poetic."

Jeff Maurice on guitar and Rob Aube on bass during one of the album's recording sessions. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)
With Han's cancer advancing quickly, recording and producing the album became a race against time.

A recording session in February was cancelled when her health took a turn for the worse and her sessions in May were cut short.

In the end, she was only able to do one take for many of the songs. Her health deteriorated and she had to return to hospital in Ottawa.  

While Han was treated in the south for cancer, her friends spent day and night recording, producing and mixing in Iqaluit.

"It's just some kind of miracle that all that happened," says Han, who admits she had no idea what the edited mixes would sound like.

The final pieces include contributions by some of Han's best friends as well as guest appearances by local artists, like Nancy Mike, who throat sings on one of the songs.

'A legacy of Siu-Ling'

Rob Aube, who has been friends with Han since the late '90s, says the album is "a legacy of Siu-Ling," and a testament to her friendship.

Han's brother Timothy says his entire family was pleasantly surprised to see Siu-Ling record an album.

"It's very nice for us to have this kind of memory of her voice," says Timothy Han, who travelled from London, England, to be at his sister's bedside.

Emily Woods, who sang backup vocals on the album, says Han's songs make her feel like she's being invited into a private world.

"That's the beauty of her music," says Woods. "They're so personal, yet universal."

'Time is measured in weeks'

'It’s been a beautiful experience and I feel pretty ready to go whenever it’s time to go,' says Siu-Ling Han. (Debbie McAllister)

Han says for her, the album is a community effort.

"This is a product of all our bonds and connections and shared love," she says.

And despite her hesitation about sharing her music, Han says she's happy the album is out.

"I'm glad that people seem to like it and take comfort from it."

She says the thought of dying is not scary for her.

"You think that someone whose time is measured in weeks is going to be very depressing and grim. It's really not been like that at all," she says.

"It's been a beautiful experience and I feel pretty ready to go whenever it's time to go."

'To those who would show kindness' is available at www.siu-ling.ca with proceeds of the record going towards youth mental health initiatives in Nunavut, which was Han's wish.

About the Author

Sima Sahar Zerehi is a reporter with CBC North. She started her career in journalism with the ethnic press working for a Canadian-based Farsi language newspaper. Her CBC journey began as a regular commentator with CBC radio's Metro Morning. Since then she's worked with CBC in Montreal, Toronto and now Iqaluit.