The 3 Pillars of Dana Leong

Dana Leong TKM
(Photo by RJ Kessler)

Would you rather know a lot about one thing or know a little bit about a bunch of things? A jack-of-all-trades or a master of one? I feel as though, as a whole, contemporary society is more impressed by the do-it-alls of the world. The Bo Jacksons. The Divinci’s. The Benjamin Franklins. I think that’s why in the musical world, we’ve become so enamored with The Roots. These guys can do it all. They’ve created some incredible Hip Hop albums but could just as easily accompany Lorde or whatever other pop sensation you throw at them. Their musical bag of tricks has no bottom lining.

Speaking for myself here, I can definitely admit to being more moved by artists that I know can handle multiple duties in the course of recording an album. Yeah, if you can do what Pharoahe Monch does on the mic, no one can take that away from you. But if you can do special things on the mic and produce the music to back it all up, like, say, Oddisee…that’s next level. And going further still, if you are playing all of the instruments on the music that you are producing…well, that’s rare and highly regarded in my book.

Today, I’m pleased to bring you a multifaceted artist who I’d categorize in the same space as any of the do-it-alls that you could name off the top of your head. Dana Leong is an accomplished cellist, trombonist as well as a producer, composer and arranger. He’s been a featured music director for Broadway’s Fela! He, along with world renown turntablist, DJ Qbert, received the very first standing ovation in the 43 year history of the World Economic Forum. His work has been featured in ads for Coca-Cola, he’s had cameos in shows such as NBC’s Law & Order, and he’s worked with Homeboy Sandman and Bjork (to name a few). He’s a former high school weightlifting champion, Hip Hop beat maker and…dude was even voted “Most Stylish New Yorker” by Time Out New York. Yeah, a jack-of-all-trades.

We caught up with the maestro and learned about what makes him tick. Lots of food talk and going vegan tips came up. And, most importantly, he told us about the three pillars to his success. Here’s some of that conversation…

First of all, I’m curious about they way you sign off over email. It says “Yamaha Performing Artist & Clinician.” Can you talk about the clinician part?

Well, a lot of times when I’m on tour I do three things: I perform, I teach and I speak. And they all go hand in hand. The performing part is probably the part that you see the most. The speaking part is a lot of inspirational speeches about my own journey – almost like live consultations about career paths, how to find inspiration and things like that. I’m actually partnered with a couple of different companies including Yamaha [who] is actually the largest manufacturer of musical instruments in the world and I helped consult to create their latest electric cello. Basically, it’s designed so you can play and practice in headphones. In Japan, a lot of people live in small apartments very close together with thin walls. So, we designed a cello that you could play just using headphones.
A lot of times when I’m on tour, I’ll go to schools and universities and help write curriculums for creating creative outlets for the youth playing the cello. It’s a four hundred year old instrument but the curriculum hasn’t been updated in quite some time.

This cello that I’ve seen you play is really unique, not like any other I’ve seen. How did you get into playing something like that?

Being on the road a lot, I needed something that was portable and durable. That was pretty much it.

Well, you’ve really taken something – an instrument not generally seen as one of the “cool” instruments, from my experiences, and brought a whole new element of cool and style into it. How did it all come about?

I’ve always been very curious, in terms of how things work. Especially electronics. As a kid, I would always try to take everything apart at home. I would take apart the answering machine and if I could have, I probably would have taken apart my mom’s car. So that curiosity is what has always led me to try to experiment. So, back in the 90’s when I first started to hang around the guys that were in rock bands and I saw that they had amplifiers and different effects boxes that they could plug their guitars into. It made me curious, what would happen if I plugged a cello into that. I went to the local music store and bought a little pickup that goes into the cello. I started plugging in pedals to the cello. So, curiosity’s one. The second thing that I think helped a lot, which continues to come back to me and I say this to a lot of people – do what you love. I would never have had any fraction of the support that I have today, whether it be a fan base or the actual infrastructure of my company, if I hadn’t followed my own vision or created the music I wanted to hear most. So much can happen in the world where, this looks good on TV, that’s going on, this is aligning, that’s spiraling…if you’re only in it to try and catch a piece of the wave, then you’re already too late anyway. When you concentrate on what it is that really excites you, then that’s what ignites excitement in others. A lot of times when I speak publicly, I say that my three pillars are: 1. You are what you eat, literally and figuratively. 2. Do what you love. 3. Know that there will be sacrifices in order to get that.

Perfect. Let’s focus on that first pillar for a minute. Where are you at with food right now? What is it that you’re trying to gravitate toward?

Well, it’s funny. For the last two-and-a-half-years I’ve been vegan and it’s the first time I’ve been able to sustain it this long. I’d tired being vegetarian but I’d always lapse because I was traveling or I’d hit some sort of barrier where I’d have [an] urge that I just couldn’t overcome. About three years ago, I met the artist out of L.A., Justin Bua. Justin’s been a huge supporter of PETA and everything vegan. His girlfriend, Ruby Roth, wrote That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals. So, I met Bua and he introduced me to David Wolfe who is one of the top dietitians in the world. And for my birthday he got me a consultation with David. I felt like it was almost like an Ali G episode because literally, I had no idea who David Wolfe was, what he did, or why it was significant. I heard him talking about super foods, I’m sitting there with him and I could be asking him anything about food, history, chemistry, diet but I’m there asking him what a super food is and why is it important. And I realized he was the real deal because he didn’t give me some kind of brush off answer like oh, obviously you don’t know who I am and haven’t read my book. He just broke it down and said, “well, a super food in today’s modern context, is a food that has amino acids, protein, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals all in one food like a goji berry or a kale or astragalus, cacao leaf, the list goes on. Nutrient rich foods.” After I learned about that it became much easier to cut back on how much I was eating and what I actually needed every day. It became much more apparent. And it wasn’t just an ego or willpower thing to give up eating meat or dairy. I also found out for myself that I after I hit a certain threshold I actually didn’t have any cravings anymore.

When it comes to personal diet, you just gotta find what works for you. Seems like you were able to really connect with that experience and situation.

There’s this book that describes different personalities and I guess I’d describe myself as a connector, an amplifier. I’m the type of person that when someone has good news, they probably want to tell me. I’m the type that’s always excited to share good news. So, when I first became vegan I was feeling great. I was working out the same as I was before but I was losing weight, which was my goal. I was feeling great, I had all this energy and all these hidden benefits started popping out. I was feeling less jet lag and less hangovers. I immediately started to preach that to my friends. But after awhile I realized exactly what you said, you have to find what works best for you. Everybody and every body is different. So I kinda stopped or quieted down propagating that type of diet or lifestyle. But I’m glad you reached out because it affirms the same pillar that I was talking about, that you gotta do what you love. That’s what’s gonna gravitate and bring in people that are on the same wavelength.

Exactly. I know you’re quite the savvy traveler, you’ve been around the world. What are some of the biggest differences you’ve noticed between food culture here in the U.S. and what you’ve experienced abroad?

Well, I think one of the obvious ones is the idea of what they call biologic food in Europe; organic food. It really is organic. You can literally go to a grocery store in a subway station and buy a potted plant of spinach and cut it down and make your lunch. And I think people are a lot more aware of the basics of how to grow a plant, how to keep a garden. It’s happening here and it’s happening rapidly but for the most part the masses don’t have that general relationship with Mother Nature. The last time I was taught anything about growing a plant was in Kindergarden. So, that’s a pretty clear cut one. That organic really is a lot closer to organic in Europe.
I definitely learned the hard way that there’s a lot of contaminants in the food in developing countries. You actually can minimize your risk of getting sick if you steer away from the animal products that often times aren’t properly stored.

Have you found it difficult to access the foods you’re trying to gravitate towards on your travels?

Maybe ten years ago it was a lot harder. If you traveled through the midwest it was next to impossible if you were going to rest stops, gas stations and late night diners. I remember one of the times that I fell off was about ten years ago when we went to Italy and the first night it was all meat and seafood and pasta. It looked good and smelled good. And that’s the other reason I try not to get too preachy. The only reason I was able to make it to where I am now is because, as a curious person – I’m a seeing-and-doing-for-myself-is-believing type of person. Had I not tried pretty much every meat under the sun I probably would not have been able to give it up. I would have been curious about what it tasted like. Because I still think to this day when I smell hamburger that it smells good. I don’t agree with people that say it’s dirty meat, of course there may be sustainability issues and cruelty issues with the treatment and processing of that meat. But I’m not gonna disagree that it doesn’t smell good. And it probably tastes good too.
For me, it’s purely functional, it’s far less about the ethical side, unfortunately. I believe in that but for me, literally, it’s a matter of functionality. I want to live longer, if I can. I want to be stronger, have better energy, look younger, if I can. It’s purely functional.

What are some things that you would recommend to someone making the switch into a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle?

One of the things that you would probably go through if you were transitioning to becoming vegetarian – it’s not the issue of protein, for sure. You can actually get your entire day’s worth of protein in a tablespoon of hemp seed powder. Protein is not the issue. You could get it in any dark leafy greens. But one of the things that I noticed that severely affects energy are the various types of Vitamin B. I would say, read up on the various sources of sustainable Vitamin B. Because contrary to poplar belief it’s not just chicken eggs, there’s so many other ways. That will help you transition for sure. At first, while your gut is reorienting itself, you may get upset stomach at times, so something like a natural charcoal should help you stabilize that. Japanese plums – you have to look for the ones without food coloring or MSG but those are one of the most alkalinic foods that you can eat. If you have an upset stomach you can just eat one of those or suck on the seed. It’s bitter and salty but it’s just as good as a Pepto bismol or Alka-seltzer or anything like that.
As you are fortifying yourself, every person is different, but the first thing that was recommended to me was the schisandra berry for a jolt of vitamin C and a clarity of energy; a good detox. That was the first thing that I got, a schisandra berry tonic. I felt awesome and I ended up buying a bottle for everyone in my family.
Goji berries were good for me, they’re a great source of minerals and vitamins but they’re also good for hydrating your cells. Maca, the Andean root, is great for boosting concentration. Raw cacao powder is pretty awesome as well. I could just go down the list. I’m reading David Wolfe’s book right now and you could check that out too. I think it’s called Superfoods.

Do you have a recipe that you could share with us?

Absolutely. Something I’ve been working on for myself for years is Chana Saag (Indian Chickpea Spinach) and I’m just getting to the point where I’m cooking it and it comes out the same every time.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion
2 cloves garlic
1 inch fresh ginger
1 tablespoon curry powder (hot or mild)
1 teaspoon cumin
¾ teaspoon sea salt (or to taste)
1 large tomato
10 oz. chopped spinach
1 cup of dried chickpeas (pre-soak for 8 hrs in filtered water with 1 tablespoon of baking soda to soften)
1 cup canned hemp milk or your favorite nut milk
½ cup water


1. Dice the onion & mince the garlic. Add to a large skillet/wok with the olive oil on medium heat. Peel ginger skin then grate the ginger with a cheese grater straight into the skillet. Sauté onion, garlic, and ginger over medium-low heat for about 5 minutes, or until the onion is soft and fragrant. While these are cooking, dice the tomato (I like to blanche then peel first, but either way!).
2. Add the cumin and curry powder to the skillet, stir and cook for one minute. Add diced tomato and salt. Continue to cook for about five minutes more, or until the tomato has broken down and is no longer holding its diced shape.
3. Boil the chickpeas (10 min high in pressure cooker or until tender in regular pot). Drain and set aside. Chop spinach (nicely pulsed in food processor works too if you prefer saucier texture). Add the water to the skillet. Stir everything together and simmer over medium heat. Let the mixture simmer for five minutes so that the flavors can meld and everything heats through.
4. After five minutes most of the water will have simmered away. Turn heat down to medium-low and add the ‘milk’. Once it’s heated through, adjust salt and curry powder to taste.
5. Serve over Basmati**, your favorite rice, or even Taiwanese rice cakes.
** Steam 1 cup rice, 1 ¾ cups water, 2 cracked cardamom pods, teaspoon sea salt

That sounds amazing! Who’s coming over for dinner?

For any and all things Dana is involved in you can head over to his official site. His discography, videos and tour dates can all be found there. But, you can also find and follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. This is one talented and focused individual. I’m quite inspired by people as driven as he is. Often, we look at successful people and wonder how did they get there. What’s their secret? Well, Dana’s given us his and it all comes down to three pillars. Find inspiration and do what you love.

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