Leslie Damaso and Jason Kutz to Perform
at the Union Playhouse
The Call of Culture
Top: Leslie Damasco
Above: The graphic from her CD
“may laya.”
By Jonathan Gramling

When she was eleven years old, Leslie Damaso found herself suddenly uprooted from her native
Philippines and transplanted to Champaign, Illinois. Like any pre-teen, Damaso tried to fit in with her
peer group and assimilate into American culture, leaving all vestiges of Filipino culture behind.

But while Leslie thought she was leaving the culture behind, in some ways, the culture kept calling to
her. Leslie eventually attended the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana to get a degree in music.
While she was a sophomore there, she met a grad student named Nelson Karincho.

“He was a tenor with an amazing voice,” Damaso said. “For some reason, he ended up getting
deported. I don’t know all of the details. Maybe a year or two later, I got this present from him. He sent
me two books of the Kundiman, which was so generous. And we weren’t even really good friends. He
just wanted to give me these pieces of music. And I didn’t really look at it at the time.”

The culture of the Philippines was calling to her.

After she graduated from Illinois, Damaso landed a job at the Arboretum Music School in the Arboretum.
Anna Manalo started working there. Manalo was a member of PAMANA at the time and so they decided to do a concert at the
Overture Center with Marvin Suson, a violinist.

“She was Filipina and I had these pieces of music that I wanted to do,” Damaso said. “And I really didn’t know much about
Kundiman, a type of Filipino art song that came about because of the Spanish colonization in the Philippines. I didn’t know
much about Filipino music. I was classically trained. It was a curiosity thing.”

The culture of the Philippines was calling to her.

Damaso and her husband lived in Madison for a while before moving to Mineral Point.

“Mineral Point is beautiful,” Damaso said. “It’s very hilly and there are a lot of historic buildings. We own one of them now,
which is super exciting. We purchased it a year ago. The bottom space is my music studio. It’s really cool. And we live
upstairs. My students are from all over the area, from Mineral Point to Darlington to Dodgeville to Spring Green. They are as
young as five-years-old and as old as 78. I work with all sorts of age groups. It’s very exciting.”
different. For 2-3 years, I was thinking, ‘How am I a Filipino living in southwest
Wisconsin, an American citizen, how do I deal with that? What is home to me?
How am I Filipino, yet I am an American?’”

Damaso began to seek out her Filipino heritage online and learned about an
exciting Filipino cultural “happening” held once a month in San Francisco’s
Mission district.

“Undiscovered SF started a year ago September and I went in October,” Damaso
said. “An article said that 3,000 people attended. I thought, ‘I have got to see this.
I have to go there.’ It was really special to me because it was also Filipino-
American History Month. It was amazing. It was at the Mint Building in San
Francisco. Around the building, they had about 40 food trucks selling Filipino food.
It was incredible. And then when you walked into the building, each little section
or room was dedicated to something. There was a music room where there was a
jazz singer and a jazz band. Honestly, I was in awe. And then they had a martial
arts room and there was literature. There was a poetry room. There was a fashion
room. There was a room dedicated to everything. Just being in that space and
seeing so many people who kind of looked like me, all of these artists, was an
incredible and powerful feeling. There was even a courtyard where they had
singers and rappers. It was really cool. It was like a cultural immersion.
Everyone was just so beautiful. I just wanted to cry. I was just like, ‘These
people are too cool. I can’t cry in front of them.’”

The culture of The Philippines was calling to her.

There was a pain that Damaso had felt ever since she was transplanted to the
United States, but she felt that she experienced it alone. There were many things
inside her that she needed to express and give context. And in reaching out, she
found comfort from her fellow Filipinos and the culture and history of The
Philippines.

“Filipinos are scattered all over the world,” Damaso said. “The Spanish colonized
The Philippines for 333 years and then we had the Americans after that. And then
there were the Japanese and then the Americans after that for a little bit.  It has
caused so much instability, political and economic instability. It has forced
everyone to look for money elsewhere. The Philippines number one export has
been people. It’s sad. I realize that it is because of that history there is all of this
pain. You force parents to look for money elsewhere. And then there is no
connection with the younger generation.”

And then Damaso turned to the Kundiman, the Filipino musical pieces that she
received a long time before to help her express that pain.

“I feel like the songs of the Kundiman represent the resilience of this group of
people, of the Filipinos because they started writing towards the end of the
Spanish occupation,” Damaso said. “It’s really adaptation and making do with
what the situation is. When you are in that type of experience, you’re not really
fighting all of the time. When you are at war, there is still time for music, for song,
for food. That was the space where these composers could console and create. It
was meant to unify the people. There are patriotic songs disguised as love songs.
It’s really beautiful. I’ve come to notice that I can’t just sing them. I have to talk
about it. I want to talk about it and bring in the history of it and part of my story
about it. What I’ve realized is that I’m not really unique because from talking to all
of these other Filipinos all over the United States, we all feel the same way. And
that gives a sense of comfort.”

The culture of The Philippines was calling to her.

Damaso released a CD, called
may laya, filled with Kundiman art songs. And it is
the reaction to these songs that Damaso saw the power of the music and its
power to heal.

“I’ve been friends with this Filipino girl from my town,” Damaso said. “And she
sent her mom the album. A couple of weeks after that, she sent me a video on
Instagram of her mom singing with these songs and how happy she was. She
said to me, ‘My mom has never talked about The Philippines until she heard the
music.’ Her mom used to sing it to her and her mom’s mom used to sing it.
Because it is so painful to think about back home, she never talked about The
Philippines until now, the general life experiences that she had. I’m really happy
that it is getting people to talk. I think that is really important in the healing
process.”

On October 21st, Damaso and pianist Jason Kutz, who worked on
may laya with
Damaso, will perform a concert of Kundiman music in the Memorial Union’s Play
Circle.

“With some of the pieces, we’re going to add percussion,” Damaso said. “We’re
kind of shaking it up a bit and modernizing it. I’m working with them and I’m like,
‘Let’s make it fresh.’ Next year, a band is going to take the album and basically re-
imagine it. For a combo of piano, trombone, bass and percussion and I will sing
some of it with them too. It’s so symbolic. We’re going to do the old stuff how it
was done and then morph into this thing, but the music is still what it is.”

The culture of The Philippines has called to Damaso and she hopes that it will
also call to you.

Damaso and Kutz will be performing on Sunday, October 21st, 3 p.m., at the
Memorial Union’s Play Circle Theater. Tickets are $25 for adults and $15 for
students and may be purchased through the Wisconsin Union Theater.
But while Damaso was living the dream, the culture of The Philippines kept calling to her.

“When you move to a different country, you have to be in the culture that you are in, so you assimilate,” Damaso said. “It’s the place where you live, yet you look