Leslie Damaso - Owner and Teacher at Buttonhill Music Studio and Performer
Leslie Damaso is a classical singer based in Mineral Point, WI. She began pursuing music seriously in her teens and received a degree in Vocal Performance from the University of Illinois, Champaign- Urbana. With a love of all genres of music, Leslie has released albums and performed around the US and the world. She recently released a kundiman album, kundiman being a genre of Filipino love songs that are gently and melodic with Tagalog lyrics meant to serenade. Leslie found a connection to performing kundiman, like it was a part of her and where she came from. She has also worked in Baybayin, contributing to Surat Magazine.
Projects and creating continue for Leslie, with her kundiman album re-imagined in collaboration with band Mr. Chair, a performance in May, and sharing her take on Filipino food and Wisconsin comfort food.
Website and social media:
Where are you based?
I’m proud to call the beautiful historic and arts community of Mineral Point, Wisconsin home. Most people have probably never heard of it. It’s in the the Driftless Region of Wisconsin. Called Driftless, because it was never glaciated, the “island in a sea of drift”. I think it’s funny that I came from a country of over 7,000 islands to end up in a sort of other island. This place is very unique. You can see it in the flora and fauna and taste it from the numerous award winning cheeses.
When did you begin performing? And when did you realize music was something you wanted to pursue?
I started performing around the age of 7 or 8 but didn’t really pursue it seriously until my late teens.
What inspired you to pursue music?
So many things! The first time I really felt alive onstage was with my friend Sarah who was a beautiful singer. She came from a musical family. There was a school program and she made me do a duet with her. I was hooked. Then later I met a few people along the way who guided me. One of my voice teachers introduced me to Cecilia Bartoli’s recordings and she also took me to a Renee Fleming concert. Later I was given some recordings of Sylvia La Torre by a family friend and got into kundiman. I just wanted to get better and better. At this time of my life, what inspires me are musicians and artists who are doing work that are hard to categorize but so fully alive and performed and presented with a lot of passion.
How would you describe your musical style? And how did you develop it?
I’m a classical singer but I love to sing in other genres as well. To the Filipinos reading this into karaoke (is there anyone who isn’t besides my brother?) I will not shy away from the occasional Whitney or Mariah! My training was at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana where I received a degree in Vocal Performance.
What are some of the songs you enjoy performing? What songs get the most crowd reaction?
I recently released an album of kundiman so I’ve been singing and enjoying that. There’s nothing else like it. Sharing a part of me, of where I came from and making new connections. Someone said to me that they sent a recording to their mom and hearing the music has gotten them to talk about the past in the Philippines, things that seemed too difficult to discuss. These are songs that were composed as a form of resistance to the Spanish colonization of 333 years but they are all so full of hope and love. That’s what I want the listener to hear.
How did you decide to work on kundiman? Was it a transition from the music you were performing before?
A friend sent me kundiman sheet music many years ago. It took me awhile to really focus on it. Being an immigrant has a lot of pain attached to it. When I was finally ready, I studied the pieces and put out an album. It wasn’t too different from pieces I’ve performed before. What was different was that it felt so much a part of me. And it is, isn’t it? It feels really good to unite the old home with the new and to be able to share it. I recently learned from an excellent podcast by Paola Mardo called “LongDistance” that it is the struggle of the 1.5 generation.
What/who has been instrumental in your personal and creative growth?
My insatiable curiosity for all things and people, finding Mineral Point, where I live— I’ve never found such a place full of inspiration, that allows for reflection, growth and where I’ve gotten so much support.
How did you begin working on Baybayin?
I saw a brief mention of Baybayin in a music dissertation about kundiman a couple of years ago. I had never heard of it. Serendipitously, I read an article about Undiscovered SF and decided to make the trip that October for the only their second event. That event was life-changing to me. It was incredible to see such an amazing collective of Filipino artists. I nearly cried every time I moved through the different areas of that festival. It happened to be Filipino-American History Month too. The first person I happened to talk to was Kristian Kabuay, who is an expert in Baybayin. I bought one of his book that featured Filipinos from all over the world and talking about their experiences being who they are where they are and each story was attached to a Filipino word written in Baybayin. Kristian wrote me a note in the script that said “Ipagpatuloy and dalon ng alon.” It means “Let the ripple of the waves continue.”
What do you enjoy about that style of creative art form?
Baybayin is so beautiful to me. I’ve even incorporated it in water color painting or in handmade cards sent to people I love. Recently, I contributed a translation and calligraphy of the first kundiman by Bonifacio Abdon to Surat Magazine headed by Kristian.
Do you have any new projects, music coming out soon?
I’m really excited about my next project. The kundiman album will be re-imagined by my friends’ band, called Mr. Chair, based in Madison. It’s a combo featuring the piano, trombone, bass and percussion. They’re music is a mix of rock, jazz, modern classical and contemporary improve-based styles. I guarantee that you will have never heard kundiman in this way.
The first performance will be in May. We are really excited to share it with the world.
It has been this amazing exploration and learning experience for me which started with the music and has become so much more. In addition to the music and Baybayin calligraphy and art, I have been sharing Filipino food as well. I recently created a menu combining Wisconsin comfort food/ingredients with Filipino dishes with a friend and we cooked for 40 people. It was fun and challenging. We were so happy it was well received.
Photos and images courtesy of Leslie Damaso