Soundmakers and storytellers: an interview with Elena Moon Park
“We went down to a basement of Chinatown overflowing with Chinese percussion instruments. We sat down on his floor and played every wooden object we could find." - Elena
Joe Beadle | 3 December 2017

Music is a witness to innovative cultural bloodstreams and evolving traditions: the global language of stories; an untamed force through hardships and barriers; a spiritual unity. Elena Moon Park’s album, Rabbit Days and Dumplings, reimagines folk and children’s music from East Asia, and brings it to the Western world. Conceived through adventure and meeting people from countless walks of life, its array of songs varies from Japanese sea shanties and Tibetan jump-rope rhymes to Korean harvest and Taiwanese train sing-alongs. An awe-inspiring marriage of East and West, Park mixes native languages with English, and traditional Eastern instrumentation with Western soundscapes. The album features instruments including the Piwang (Tibetan fiddle), Buzuq (Arabic lute), accordion and organ.

Some of the album’s songs were part of my own childhood, such as Tum Tum Chuen (“spinning round and round”) from southern China. Inspired by her diverse ethos, I reached out to Elena for an interview, to discover her creative process and cultural ambitions.

Joe) How did you explore the music of East Asia?

Elena) I explored many old recordings and did research to find interpretations of East Asian songs. But the most fulfilling and effective method for me was talking to people. Meeting people with their roots there, and being introduced to other people, and learning about their musical experiences along the way. This is true of any place in the world. This is how I was given albums of traditional Japanese music; big books of Korean folk songs; live recordings of children's songs from Taiwan.

J) Did exploring music across the world build your identity in some way?

E) Making this album undoubtedly brought me closer to my heritage. It sparked conversations with my parents, aunts, uncles, even grandparents about our cultural traditions. It introduced me to the intricacy and splendour of Korean traditional music (my roots), alongside Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Tibetan traditions. It revealed to me the threads that tie together global cultures, and made me prouder and more knowledgeable about my own heritage, which is invaluable.   

J) What were your listeners’ reactions?

E) Listeners have been very loving and grateful. Families were excited to hear this music and these sounds, especially families with East Asian roots. While touring for ten years with Dan Zanes and friends, I met so many Asian-American families and adopted Asian children, and in a sense, this album is dedicated to them. America is so rich with people worldwide, and this is my celebration of the beautiful cultural traditions from East Asia.  

J) Your album epitomises the magic of intercultural exchange. Why is this so important to you, and the world?

E) To appreciate the richness of humanity and this beautifully diverse world, we are given the opportunity to share our stories with each other. It is important to hear many different voices, to understand and empathise with the experiences of our fellow human beings. To me, this sharing and dialogue is the core of humanity. Celebrating each other's stories creates a sense of harmony and understanding. Music - like food, art, dance, crafts - makes us see each other as people: not just as nation-states. The more we humanise the "other" and bring the conversation away from nationalism or fear of the "other," the better off we will all be. Creative expression reveals that we experience remarkably similar joys and sorrows, and that is why people are so receptive: it is our nature. We are all soundmakers by birth, drawn to the music’s power and joy.

J) Do you have any upcoming projects?

E) I work with the arts non-profit organisation that I have been a part of for the last seven years, called Found Sound Nation. We organise a global music exchange program called OneBeat, that brings individual musicians from the whole world together to the US every autumn for a month of creative collaboration. I have started to record ideas for a second album, hopefully it will be completed by winter 2018.

This sunny album communicates to the listener that the world is spinning in the right direction. Elena shows us the potential power of music to dissolve barriers and empower intercultural exchange. Now it is up to us to take this mission to the head and heart, united as global citizens.

See this article translated into Spanish:

Original Illustration by Lewis Bushell


James Routledge 2016