Elena Moon Park, a musician, educator and producer based in Brooklyn, New York City, is connecting the Asian diaspora through all-ages music and global cultural exchange.
Having released “Rabbit Days and Dumplings” (2012) and “Unhurried Journey” (2020) – two full albums of original songs and reimagined folk and children’s songs from East Asia – Elena performs with fellow musicians as Elena Moon Park and Friends for families across the U.S. During quarantine, she even put on virtual “Stay at Home” concerts for schools from her Brooklyn apartment.
Elena’s YouTube channel is full of beautiful music videos of mixed mediums, with commissioned art to illustrate the stories told by each of her songs, as well as clever video editing used to insert herself and other musicians into the videos. Her video for the Japanese children’s song, “ANTA GATA DOKO SA,” is a personal favorite of mine.
I met Elena on the first day of the Austin City Limits Music Festival (ACL), where she was performing for the festival’s kids’ programming stage, Austin Kiddie Limits. Children approached the stage and danced with their guardians as she and her band played reimagined folk songs like the Taiwanese train song “Diu Diu Deng,” a Cambodian song about the growth of flowers called “Flower Dance (ផ្ការាំ)” and “Sol Nal,” a Korean New Year’s song. Alongside Elena was her accompanying vocalist Akiko Hiroshima, who demonstrated special dances and gestures during the songs for families to follow along with.
Elena spoke with me after her performance on the first day of the festival to talk about what inspired her to adapt East Asian folk songs for children around the world, how she became involved in cultural exchange programs and how she came to learn such a diverse collection of songs.
“I was born and raised in Oakridge, Tennessee, which is a small southern town in East Tennessee, and I started playing violin at a really young age so my parents started me off on violin and piano, as a lot of Korean immigrant parents tend to do, when I was 5,” she shared.
“During college, I actually quit playing completely, and I got into other stuff,” she continued. “I was always very interested in racial dynamics in the U.S., I think partly influenced by growing up as an Asian person in a small southern town but also by my older sister — she started studying U.S. history, especially African American history in the U.S.
“So when I quit playing the violin, I got into public health first, then urban policy, and then I started working in community organizing in Chicago. I did that kind of grassroots economic development work in small community organizations for a couple of years, but I really missed music, so I took two years off completely.”
Elena is the co-artistic director of Found Sound Nation (FSN), which its website describes as “a creative agency that uses music-making to connect people across cultural and societal divides.” The agency emphasizes collaborative music creation as a means for community enhancement domestically and internationally. FSN runs a music-based residency and tour program called OneBeat for burgeoning artists to collaborate with one another, create music and brainstorm civic and social engagement strategies.
“After a few years of working with this organization we entered into a partnership with the U.S. State Department and got this contract to design and run a U.S. State Department-funded, music-based cultural exchange program,” Elena explained.
“OneBeat is a program of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural affairs at the U.S. State Department, which is the same Bureau that funds the Fulbright program and a lot of these cultural-based exchanges,” she added. “Our particular program has an age range to it because they’re targeting emerging artists. For OneBeat, we have open applications every year that are open to any musician between 19 and 35 from 50 different countries around the world, including the U.S.”
“That started in 2012, and we’ve been doing that for 10 years now, so that was an outgrowth of those collaborative music workshops that we were doing and turned into this global music program. That kind of took over everything, and now we’ve reached our 10-year anniversary with that program, and that program started as just one residency a year in the U.S. and has blown up to four residences a year: two of them in the U.S., one of them is in a different country every year and one online program.”
Elena also explained that collaboration has been a major contributing factor to her collection of East Asian folk songs:
“It really all had to do with talking to people, usually over food, because food is such a great way to start getting excited about your cultural roots. I started with my parents and my aunts and talked to them about songs from Korea that they remembered and loved from their childhood, and then colleagues and friends in New York all kind of within the East, Southeast Asian world. My usual bass player in my band is Japanese, and he gave me some of the songs he loved as a child. Akiko, who sings in the band, also suggested a couple of songs.”
“I just reach out to different people and ask about songs that linger in their memory from when they were growing up,” she continued. “More recently, because of the OneBeat program, we’ve met, at this point, over 400 amazing musicians from all over the world, and I definitely have collaborated with some of them for my albums. The Cambodian flower dance song I learned from a OneBeat alumni from Cambodia, I have two Indonesian songs that I learned from an amazing Indonesian vocalist, and Korean songs that I have feature OneBeat alumni, so I’ve met people through our global music program that I’ve brought into my kids’ music interest.”
As for how she returned to music and became involved in cultural exchange programs, Elena attributed her inspiration to connections she made with other artists through a New York-based music organization called Bang on a Can:
“It’s a contemporary music organization based in New York. , I went to their summer festival and I played in this Uzbek folk group that was there just by chance, and I sang on stage for the first time in my life. I met with this guy Dan Zanes, and he had been doing family music for a really long time. I didn’t know what I was doing, I couldn’t even improvise very simple folk songs, but we got along on a personal level, and I realized that he had a real mission to the music he was making. He wanted to make, not kids’ music necessarily, but all-ages music with the purpose of inviting people into the music-making process and getting people to be able to express themselves.”
“It was so opposite from the classical music world, which my experience of was very… there’s a barrier to entry,” she continued. “It’s not the most inviting thing for people who don’t have training. I played my first kids’ show with him with all these families and 3-year-olds in the audience, and it was definitely the most meaningful musical experience I’ve ever had in my life up until that point. I was pretty into it, I was really hooked. I also really liked his approach to it, which is not necessarily singing about kiddie things that just feel like kids, but things that are universal to all ages. So not singing about adult-themed stuff like romantic love all the time, but stuff like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, that kind of tradition of all-ages music.”
While her first album is a collection of reimagined East Asian folk and children’s songs, Elena described her most recent album, “Rabbit Days and Dumplings,” as a blend of reimagined and original tunes for which she crafted a narrative to follow along with the music.
“‘Rabbit Days and Dumplings,’ all except for one song, are all reimagined folk and children’s songs from East Asia. It’s a collection of songs but it’s half reimagined folk and children’s songs and half original songs. That album is actually all inspired by the artwork of the woman who did the artwork for my first album, her name is Kristiana Pärn. I love her stuff, it feels very calm and zen. She’s from Estonia but her work feels some resonance with Eastern Asian philosophy and culture. I took a lot of the names of her pieces and turned them into songs, so that’s half the album, and the other is existing folk songs. The album’s theme is about journeying the world through song and story, and then I wrote a story to go along with the album after it had been completed.”
Although ACL has come and gone, those interested in learning more about Elena can visit her website. For emerging musicians interested in collaborative cultural exchange programs, she encourages applicants to visit OneBeat’s website.
Featured Image via YouTube