Q&A: Dana Leong, jazz cellist

Dana Leong talks about social media, a life dedicated to music and collaborating with a hip-hop computer

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 December, 2015, 8:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 December, 2015, 11:40am

Two-time Grammy-winning electro-jazz cellist Dana Leong was in town to perform at the Save the Children gala dinner on November 28. He spoke to us about his upbringing, mixing music genres and his bright orange cello.

It wasn’t the first time you’ve performed in Hong Kong. How do you feel coming back?

The last time I was here was to premiere a piece that I created called The Sound of Folk Tales. I played it at the Sha Tin Town Hall for the New Vision Festival in 2012. I love Hong Kong: it’s such an amazing, vibrant place that also has an energy from the earth. You can feel it from the rolling mountains and the beautiful water. I was very surprised at how fast it’s grown. Coming in from the airport I was like "wow, this is very impressive", how fast it’s growing, how many new buildings and businesses. It’s very surprising.

What brought you back?

I performed to support the Save the Children organisation. I believe in performing and making music for causes that help humanity and improve the well-being of the mind and the body. And I believe in appearing and supporting organisations that are true to causes I believe in. I played a mixture of my own music which is a mixture of exciting electronica and classical music.

Why does it appeal to you to mix different genre of music?

I think of music the way that I think about food: when you find ingredients that you like, you probably want to eat them. And when you find sounds that you like, you want to listen to them. And when you find ingredients that have a good energy together, you want to try them together. If they work, they become new dishes.

Does this genre mixing have anything to do with your upbringing?

My mother was a classical musician who later explored folk and pop in Japan - she had her own television show on NHK called Stage 101, and she trained me from an early age to love classical and jazz music. I was always a curious, experimental child. I loved to take apart everything I could get my hands on. I wanted to see what was inside and how it worked and how I could make it better. And that curiosity has led me to where I am today.

How so?

When you tell me that there’s a style of music that is only sung by monks in Nepal and it’s meant to lift your spirit, I want to hear it and I want to play it. It’s this experimental nature that has led me to fusing genres. However, as I mature, I think I’m becoming more curious about where I came from and where my ancestors came from. I plan to explore my heritage, on the Chinese side and the Japanese side.

What was the pivotal moment that led you to dedicating your life to music?

I had the choice of studying music and track and field at Stanford University, studying biology at UC Berkeley as my father did or accept a scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music. In the end I picked up my duffle bag and instrument and headed to New York to devote my life to music.

How did the idea of the Freestyle Fridays series on YouTube come about?

As I became busier and busier, I wanted to be able to commit to a regular output on YouTube. There were three things I wanted to do: make little videos for fun, collaborate with other artists and improvise. Every month I choose an artist to collaborate with. Sometimes I don’t choose an artist, the most recent one I did was a collaboration with a computer. I set the computer to play random hip hop beats and I played along with a blindfold on.

Is social media helping you as a musician?

I would say yes. I performed in a symphony hall in Vladivostok at an international music festival. When I go to play a concert and I don’t know the concert presenter, I ask them how they know about me. Was it my agent? Were they doing a good job? Was it social media or word of mouth? Did your friends tell you about me? This particular presenter found me on YouTube. They liked what they saw and decided to call me and bring me to play in Russia.

Your cello looks so cool.

I have been using this particular cello for eight, nine years. It’s a Silent cello developed by Yamaha. I was fortunate that I was able to meet the design team and give tips on how to make it sound as good as it possibly could.

Do they come in a wide range of colours?

They actually only come in black. I took this one to a friend who paints motorcycles in San Francisco and made it orange.