Singer Explores Filipino Roots on New Album

Madison-based pianist Jason Kutz, left, and Mineral Point’s Leslie Damaso are releasing “May Laya,” an album of Philippine art songs recorded at Audio for the Arts in Madison.

Leslie Damaso has a Tagalog tattoo on the inside of her right arm that reads may laya. Pronounced mai-lah-yah, the words mean “there is freedom,” and they’re also the title of her new album, a collection of Philippine art songs called kundiman. Damaso, the 35-year-old Filipino-American owner of Buttonhill Music Studio in Mineral Point, and Madison-based pianist Jason Kutz shared a bit about the new release with Voice of the River Valley.

Q: For the uninitiated, Leslie, tell us a bit about yourself.

A: I moved from the Philippines to the States at age 11 — first to Effingham, Illinois, then to Champaign — and later studied music at the University of Illinois. I teach voice and piano lessons.

The album art designed by Jason Kutz and Leslie Damaso features calligraphy by Leslie that says “may laya” — “there is freedom” — in a Philippine pre-colonial script called Baybayin. Their collection of Philippine art songs is being released this month.


Q: Among other things, you are also a singer and composer. How did you get your start in music? 

A: It’s funny that you started the question with “among other things” because it’s so hard for me to stop exploring! I got the music bug in the Philippines. My best friend Sarah (a beautiful singer), who came from a musical family, somehow convinced me to do a duet with her for a school program. I remember feeling incredibly happy after the performance but thinking how mad it was. If you can believe it, I was extremely shy for a very long time. I may have just gotten over it last week. I studied piano, too, before moving, but that first time singing in public made me feel so much more. Because of my introverted personality, I studied art instead once I got to America. I had two hours every Saturday with a teacher. We got to explore many mediums. Then as a freshman in high school, I was selected to be a member of the top choir. It brought me back to the joy of music-making, so I decided to return to piano and later added voice lessons, too. Fast forward to my junior and senior years: I tried my best to look for an alternative route besides music, but there wasn’t anything else I wanted, so I ended up auditioning at Illinois, got in and that was that.

The album art designed by Jason Kutz and Leslie Damaso features calligraphy by Leslie that says “may laya” — “there is freedom” — in a Philippine pre-colonial script called Baybayin. Their collection of Philippine art songs is being released this month.

Q: Tell us about your newest project and its roots and evolution as a part of your musical journey.

A: Kundiman, which means “if it were not so,” is a genre that started around the late 1800s and was composed up to the mid-1900s as a reaction to the Spanish occupation of 333 years. It was later used as propaganda during the American and Japanese occupations and during the time of the People Power Revolution when Ferdinand Marcos was president. In the past couple of years, I have had this intense need to explore my roots and to define what home means to me. Though I am an American citizen, how is it that I’m also Filipino?

Like many immigrants, it was and it is easier to assimilate. I am part of the Filipino diaspora. My upbringing and relationship to my family and to the country where I was born is complicated. From reaching out and talking to other Filipinos around my age these past few years, I have realized that my story is not unique. The Philippines has been unstable through so many generations. It’s not surprising the effects of war, corruption, politics and religion has had on its people.

For people like me/like us, the question of identity or home is challenging to define, but I have also learned that many Filipinos are doing exactly what I’m doing. There is a more open dialogue to sort out cultural issues, but what excites me even more is the celebration of the things that makes everyone feel human: food, art, music, dance, literature, poetry and more. There is monthly celebration in San Francisco called Undiscovered SF that I attended last October. It was a very special trip to me because I connected with people who understood what I was trying to figure out and it was extra special because it also happened to be Filipino-American History Month.

Q: How was this recording project different than others?

A: I recorded one other album prior to this called “Chained to the World,” which I did by myself at my old house, a 150-year-old farmhouse, in an office/pantry that was smaller than a jail cell. It was quite a challenge. I did that project to figure out how to love music again. There was a good year or two where I didn’t want to sing anymore. And what better way than to immerse myself in songs by Tom Waits, a man with the worst singing voice I had ever heard. I think he is brilliant and consider him one of the best poets, so I sang his songs. “You can never hold back spring,” he said.

The new album is more personal on a deeper level because I’m sharing the Filipino part of me. These songs are beautiful. The melodies are folk tunes and the accompaniments are more in the Western art song tradition. They are about love and patriotism and longing for things that no longer exist. The sheet music was a gift from a Filipino friend, Nelson Caruncho, a superb tenor, whom I met in music school. Jason Kutz, a brilliant pianist and friend, recorded the album with me last year at Audio for the Arts in Madison with engineer Buzz Kemper.
My experience at AFA has been so sweet. Except for the five minutes prior to our first recording session, I have felt so at ease with the entire process. And I couldn’t think of a better pianist to have done the project with than Jason, whose lightness and positive energy has been a welcome counterpoint as I have been trying to find my way. When you hear him play, you’ll see the energy that he brings to the kundiman.

Q: What challenges did you face with the

A: Leslie: The sheet music was a little difficult to decipher because a lot it was handwritten. Several of the pieces had minimal instruction for performance and there were no recordings available, so it was up to Jason and I to decide on the interpretation.

Jason: A major challenge was referencing any recordings of these pieces, or even kundiman in general. It’s always helpful to hear what others have done in terms of tempi, articulations, rubato, pedaling, phrasing, etc. We found only a couple songs we chose for the album previously recorded, and in more than one case the recording was voice with orchestra, leaving the piano a mystery. Musicians are often tasked with an important duality: be honest to the heritage and history of the music while also maintaining your own musical integrity. This made my usual method of embellishing on the arrangements difficult since I didn’t want to ‘ornament’ or improvise anything out of style, though much of the music asks to be explored.

Q: Jason, what do you think of kundiman?

A: I think kundiman is beautiful music absolutely worthy of being programmed alongside contemporary and classical art or pop songs. The style is accessible to all, and helps shed light on a culture less realized in the U.S. The music has a Spanish tinge to it with elements of tango or sometimes Latin rhythms, but also an Island beauty and tranquility. Then there’s a depth to the storytelling if you choose to translate and go beyond the glide of the lovely Tagalog.

Q: Leslie, what are your hopes for this project?

A: First, I want to help preserve this music because it is a snapshot of history. History that sadly keeps repeating itself. But when something beautiful comes out of struggle like these songs, I want to celebrate it and I want to share it. I would be happy if I could reach just one Filipino who is part of the diaspora and feel transported to that place that is the closest I’ve felt to that old home as I could get. And maybe that connection might create a new place, a new home. I’m also eager for new audiences to experience it!

“May Laya: Kundiman Art Songs of the Philippines for Soprano and Piano” featuring Leslie Damaso and Jason Kutz is being released in July and will be available through iTunes, Spotify, Amazon and elsewhere. A Mineral Point launch party is set for July 27. Live performance dates to be announced. For more information, follow Leslie Damaso Music on Facebook.