Music video portrays her life as a Filipino-American in a small Wisconsin town

Leslie Damaso headshot

“Music has been a refuge for us during these challenging times.”

Last February, musician Leslie Damaso relished her first performance at International Festival, singing kundiman art songs of the Philippines to a lively, engaged audience in a packed Promenade Hall.

“I was pleased with the variety of people who came to our performance,” said Damaso. “Kids were dancing up front, even though they didn’t know the language. It was a beautiful experience.”

Before her performance, Damaso spent hours exploring the dozens of vendor booths, sampling international cuisine and watching a variety of performances throughout the building.

“I loved the relaxed atmosphere,” she said. “It had an outdoor festival feel, a joyousness about it. I can’t wait until I can feel that kind of experience and energy again.”

This year, Damaso is again participating in International Festival, a virtual event, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that kicks off on Saturday, Feb. 27 with an opening ceremony at 10 a.m. Damaso’s performance, titled “Bayan Ko” (which means “my home”), is a video about exploring and expressing her identity as a Filipino-American woman in a small Midwestern town.

“I really love how the video came together,” she said. “We filmed last August after having been isolated for several months. Each part of the music was recorded in isolation, and the people were filmed separately for safety. I can tell you a story about every place, every single item, every person involved, even the dog that is so connected to my life here. I still get teary eyed even now when I watch it.”

The video was picked up by FilAm Arts’ Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture in Los Angeles in October as part of Filipino-American History Month.

Damaso appreciates Overture Center putting on a virtual International Festival this year and giving her the platform to share her music and heritage.

Damaso was born in the Philippines and moved to Illinois at age 11.

Growing up, she took music lessons, but was very shy. In middle school, her best friend convinced her to perform a duet for a school program.

“It was scary, but I discovered that I liked singing in front of people,” she recalled.

Damaso was a member of her school’s top choir all four years of high school and went on to study music at the University of Illinois.

“I love music,” she said. “It’s an important vehicle for expression.”

Damaso focuses her music on kundiman art songs, composed in the late 1800s in protest to Spanish colonization of the Philippines. Text is written in Tagalog, the main dialect in the Philippines, and communicates a love of country and yearning for freedom.

Her latest album, May Laya, received the 2019 Best World Album award from the Madison Area Music Association.

Damaso enjoys collaborating with Mr. Chair, a Madison-based contemporary fusion ensemble, featured in the “Bayan Ko” video. Together, they are working on an album.

Damaso also owns and operates Buttonhill Music Studio on Main Street in Mineral Point, where she teaches voice and piano lessons. Since March, her lessons have been online, except for an occasional outdoor lesson in warmer weather.

“One positive is that kids are learning more repertoire because they have more time to practice,” she said. “Music has been a refuge for us during these challenging times.”

Damaso has spent a significant part of the past year participating in and attending virtual programs and performances.

“I’ve connected with artists from all over the world, which has been a gift,” she said.

At times during the pandemic, she has found it disheartening to practice by herself. She misses time to work with others and collaborate. But she is grateful for the healing force of music, its ability to uplift her spirit.

She looks forward to sharing her music at International Festival, and she hopes the festival inspires the celebration of Wisconsin’s array of cultures throughout the entire year.

“International Festival represents the many ethnic communities in our area,” said Damaso. “Attending the festival is a great way to celebrate these cultures, learn about new artists and be inspired!”

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