Leslie Damaso’s original work ‘Sirena’ brings texture, culture and healing to Spring Dig Jazz

Returning for its eighth year just in time for Jazz Appreciation Month, Spring Dig Jazz’s first 2022 event featured a collaboration between Filipino-American singer, writer and teacher Leslie Damaso and the multi-music group like Mr. Flesh. Presented at the Arts + Literature Laboratory (ALL) in collaboration with the Madison Music Collective, Damaso’s original work “Sirena” was performed live on Friday April 1st. Convincingly weaving the elements of myth, romance and patriotism, “Sirena” tells the story of a young mermaid who falls in love with the moon (Bulan), the forbidden romance responsible for the creation of the Philippine Islands.

Friday’s show was the most recent evolution of a six-year collaboration between Damaso and Mr. Chair. Pianist Jason Kutz and Damaso performed together for the first time in a recital called “The Tears of Things”, which included two kundiman songs (traditional Filipino songs of love and freedom) that reflected more than three centuries of Spanish colonization in the Philippines. With that original audience hungry for more, Damaso recorded and released eight kundiman songs for his 2018 album “May Laya.”

“At that time, I also yearned to connect with the Philippines, where I was born, and also to define my home and my identity as a Filipino-American,” Damaso said. “Some months [after the album release], I saw Mr. Chair in concert and immediately imagined how fantastic kundiman would sound with their maximalist blend of jazz, rock and classical styles filled with the range of human emotions,” Damaso said. “Their expression of boundless joy captivated me but also how incredible they were as musicians.”

Genre-bending in every way, Damaso managed to balance storytelling, various jazz styles, and visual artwork to create a universe that crumbled both time and the planes of knowledge. Bouncing between spoken word excerpts, contemporary renditions of kundiman songs, and instrumental numbers, the all-encompassing nature of Damaso’s work has left few stones unturned in this project of cultural and historical reimagining.

The narrative aspect of “Sirena” was told during a “brown out” from the perspective of a Lola (grandmother) in a small Filipino village, bringing her audience back to a childlike curiosity characterized by a reception unfiltered from anything they might encounter. Damaso was particularly inspired by her upbringing in the Isabela of the Cagayan Valley, located along the Cagayan River. “I wanted it to feel very old, pre-colonial,” Damaso said. At times dark and cautious, and at other times lively and celebratory, the musical arrangements remained true to the dynamism and restlessness inherent in love, conflict and nation-building.

With Damaso’s colorful and nature-inspired artwork projected onto the walls of the performance space, audiences were immersed in a world equally marked by curiosity, desire and vivid expression. Comprising both watercolor and pen, these pieces also incorporated the ancient Filipino script of baybayin, another nod to Damaso’s roots. The traditional jazz ensemble (with bass, piano, percussion, violin and trombone) was also accompanied by melodies played on the kulintang, an instrument made up of a set of gongs originating from the Maguindanao region in the southern Philippines.

Although jazz and kundiman songs initially seem incongruous in both genre and time period, Damaso spoke about the deeper compatibility of the two genres. “I read something a few days ago that said that the root of jazz expressions is human suffering. This fusion of styles works because of this common characteristic,” she explained. “When the Americans colonized the Philippines after the Spaniards, they brought jazz to the country. There was a famous singer, Atang de la Rama, who pioneered the combination of kundiman and jazz. Conflict is impossible to sustain, humans crave connection. It all comes down to love.

Damaso and Mr. Chair’s contemporary musical arrangements of kundiman songs managed to transform the prism of feelings of devotion and nostalgia. Songs like Mike Velarde’s “Dahil Sa Iyo” (Because of You) and Constancio De Guzman’s “Bayan Ko” (My Home) were each given new contemporary life experimentally, but remained true to the underlying messages. songs. The chemistry between Damaso and trombonist Mark Hetzler was especially palpable during Ilocana’s folk song “O Naraniag a Bulan” (Oh Bright Moon), where Damaso’s operatic voice was given both clarity and texture.

“It was such a beautiful, satisfying and calming experience to see this project come to life and to be able to present it to my dear friends and collaborators,” said Damaso.

The next two free Spring Dig Jazz events will take place on the next two Fridays at Art + Lit Lab at 7:30 p.m. Virtual broadcast options are also available for both events. Find more details here.

Comments are closed.