The experience of listening to “Rabbit Days and Dumplings,” the new album by Elena Moon Park of Dan Zanes and Friends, is delightfully strange: the music is foreign and deeply familiar in the same instant; wildly contemporary and ancient at once; light-hearted and heart-rending in a single melody. When I played the first song, “Sol Na,” in my kitchen one morning, my three children came running to dance, and, frankly, we haven’t stopped since. Hands down, it is the best all-ages album I’ve ever come across. This is a big statement for me to make, being quite particular about kids’ music—and given the fact that I don’t understand any of the lyrics.
Understandably, this is because the songs are sung are in a variety of different East Asian languages: Japanese, Korean, Tibetan, Chinese, and Taiwanese to name a few. The sounds are new and exciting—a pipa, for example, is plucked by world renowned player WuMan.Just treat yourself to the train song, Diu Diu Deng, for a taste of it. A pipa! (A traditional Chinese string instrument.) Who knew what gorgeous frenzy of sound could be produced from it!?
The album is a musical and cultural boundary crossing. It translates and interprets East Asian music for a contemporary Western audience in a way that is infinitely danceable, inviting, and joyous. Listening to it, I could only feel grateful toElenaMoonParkfor making it, because it would have been such a shame to miss out on this music from the other side of the world. Here, Elena talks with us a bit about what it took to deliver this music to us.
Tell us about your musical background. Did you grow up in a musical family?
My mother played piano and studied composition in college, and she started my sister and I on violin when we were pretty young. I went through Suzuki, the typical classical training, and I actually went to college for classical violin. I quickly decided that the classical route wasn’t one for me, but I missed it a lot. When I moved to New York City, I decided that it would be crazy to be in New York and not try to play music again.
How did you meet up with Dan Zanes?
Dan was looking for a singing fiddle player. I had never really sung before, but I had played with a group of Pakistani musicians in a summer festival and sang a song of theirs. I was recommended to Dan’s band from that first experience. I’d never played outside of the classical tradition and I had a steep learning curve, but we got along on a personal level, and I think he saw that my energy and my heart were in the right place
What is the story behind this album? What prompted you to try and make it?
I grew up in a small town in Tennessee. My parents are Korean, but I was one of only a very few Asians in our town and I was very Americanized. It was only as I got older that I realized I had more connection to my Korean culture than I had thought. This album was a way for me to connect with my family and other Asian Americans, a platform to discuss our lives.
How did your parents respond to the album?
A lot of the songs I chose are old Korean folk songs, not necessarily what they listen to now. They were surprised that I wanted to reinterpret and explore these particular songs. But as we got into it, it was really great for both them and myself to do the research and talk about the music— and talk about Korea and their childhoods through it.
What does “Rabbit Days” refer to?
I came up with [the album title] when I was trying to decide on a Kickstarter project name to raise funds for the album. It was the year of the rabbit in the lunar calendar at the time…and Rabbit Days and Dumplings seemed to roll off the tongue.
What is your hope for the album?
One of the big goals for this project was to fill a void in the Western family music world. Hopefully, this will whet people’s curiosity for East Asian music, then they will go and seek out more it and, in doing so, understand perhaps a little bit more about the culture behind the music.
Where to find Elena Moon Park next: Visit rabbitdays.com for details on summer shows starting in May