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Dana Leong: No Boundaries

By Published: February 26, 2008
DL: Actually, that's funny. Someone just asked me that not 24 hours ago. Or that was my answer to the question, what does jazz have to learn from hip-hop and vice-versa. I think it's happening naturally. Hip-hop is learning that it doesn't necessarily have to be solo artist-centric music about a certain guy and his lifestyle. It can really be about the music. And people are also learning about the effect of live music. They are seeing what it is like to combine live elements on stage. Vice-versa for jazz. I think people are starting to see the importance of at least the consciousness of your image.

AAJ: The last time you were in Washington, DC, you were with Paquito D'Rivera for the Duke Ellington Festival. I'm curious how you became involved with Paquito?

DL: I was introduced to Paquito through his former pianist Alon [Yavnai]. I think it was one day when they had just finished a recording—with Yo-Yo Ma and Mark Summer, who is the cellist with the Turtle Island String Quartet. But they were looking for somebody who could play live with them, because both of those guys are pretty busy with their own projects. So Alon recommended me to Paquito, and Paquito invited me over to his house. We hung out and had a very, very informal audition of reading through some music and sort of hanging out for a day, and that's how we became introduced.

AAJ: He's such an amazing figure. You obviously work collaboratively on these projects, but I imagine there are lots of things you've been able to learn from him. Is there anything that particularly stands out?

DL: You know that very thing we were just speaking about: consciousness of image. He's definitely one of those people that is just a conscious person in general. He's aware of who's around, what the purpose of the performance is, who we are playing to, how we are going to shape the music into a presentation that people are going to enjoy.

AAJ: He's come to DC a few times with different groups, and I've always been impressed by his willingness to insert these very humorous, but very pointedly political comments. Now some people say politics and art don't mix at all—for some it's like peanut butter and chocolate.

DL: I do definitely see the relationship, and definitely the importance and the overall power of the presence of art. But there's a very fine line between pure intention and something that might be slightly manipulative—which is why we were very happy to go on this last tour with the State Department. But we also made sure to ask the right questions beforehand to make sure. Where are we visiting? And from the the political standpoint, what are we supporting? Are we going as part of an artistic endeavor, or a personal mission, or certain political causes? Those things need to be considered.

AAJ: Can you explain what you meant by pure intention, and can you give an example of how that would be lost and become instead manipulative?

DL: Music used to propagate war has always been one of the areas where I feel that art is misused. From something as subliminal as using uplifting music to solicit people to enlist in the army, to sending musicians to perform in "war torn" lands, either to support troops or as "a gift" to make amends with the local people. A second issue to which I have been sensitive is the use of popular people to market products to children. It does not make sense to me to deliver a skewed message to young minds who may otherwise not know the quality of a product—until it is too late.

AAJ: Let's talk about the State Department tour for a minute that you just mentioned. How did you get involved in it?

Dana Leong DL: Actually, there is an audition process that is pretty lengthy. First round, there is a written application. If that looks good on paper, letters of recommendation, all sorts of statements of why you want to go, what assets you bring. After that, you get into the musical aspects. You send a CD and a press packet. After that, there are a couple rounds of live audiences, and they select a couple bands to be interviewed.

AAJ: What drew you to going through all of that?

DL: First and foremost, my biggest dream is to get outside my immediate area and play the music that I'm creating. We are not creating music so we can play it in the confines of the island of Manhattan. We want to get out there and share the music.

AAJ: This last leg was in Southeast Asia, right?

DL: Yes. We started in Fiji then went to Papua New Guinea, which is interesting because I was the very first person in history to bring an acoustic cello into the country—or so I was told. So I can go down in the books now for something!

AAJ: What were some of the highlights of this trip?

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