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  • The Musical Universe of Low Leaf

    “A genie gave this to me.”

    Low Leaf gestured to her necklace: a thick black string looped around a yellow tiger fang. Throughout our interview, she often referenced dreamlike interactions with magical figures, including a fairy who welcomed her to a treehouse deep in the woods. After these declarations, she shrugged and laughed a little, as if aware that others might not “get” her or her music.

    Low Leaf’s 2014 album AKASHAALAY pays tribute to the Philippines, but she refused to talk at length about her previous project. Although a performer at the 2016 Folklife Festival, an event devoted to celebrating cultural diversity, Low Leaf repeatedly emphasized her growing focus on musical themes separate from her Filipino identity. She spoke passionately about her relationship with nature, noting that she found peace and strength by communing with plants. “I relate more to being a tree than being Filipino,” she said at one point.

    As Low Leaf described her songwriting process, it became clearer that her primary concerns were maintaining musical integrity and allowing her songs to stand on their own. In this way, it seemed that she carefully, but firmly, sent a message: the complex intersection of her ethnic identity should not relegate her to a niche genre.

    In the heavy humidity of a D.C. summer, Low Leaf commanded the crowd’s attention when she played the harp. She would bow her head, eyes closed, while her fingers glided easily across the strings. Everything about Low Leaf—her flowing dress, her long braids, her stories about fantastical creatures—buoys the spirit of her music. When she plays her next song, it is easy to believe in benevolent genies and talking trees.

    Editing: Claudia Romano
    Interview and text: Michelle Mehrtens
    Videography: Helen Lehrer, Kamila Young

    Michelle Mehrtens is a documentary production intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a student at Brown University, where she studies English and history.  Her work at the Center is part of the Katzenberger Foundation Art History Internship program.

    The 2016 Sounds of California Smithsonian Folklife Festival program was co-produced with the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, Radio Bilingüe, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, and the Smithsonian Latino Center.

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