A classically-trained pianist, cellist and singer-songwriter, Dominique Pinto aka Dom la Nena was born in Porto Alegre in Brazil. Relocating to Paris at the age of eight, the young musician was gifted a cello to ease the traumatic move. Falling instantly in love with the instrument, Dom la Nena moved to Buenos Aires to study with American cellist Christine Walevska. Returning to Paris at the age of 18 where she eventually settled permanently, she debuted her professional career as a cellist for Jane Birkin with whom she embarked on a two-year long world tour.

After a string of collaborations with veteran actress and singer Jeanne Moreau, French singers Camille and Etienne Daho or English folk singer Piers Facccini, Dom la Nena launched her solo career in 2013 with the exquisite Ela. Singing in Portuguese, Spanish or French, her three solo albums to date draw inspiration from Latin song traditions and constantly delve into the polyrhythmic intricacies of these repertoires. Since 2014, Dom la Nena also struck a wonderful partnership with alt-folk band Moriarty’s lead singer Rosemary Standley as the Birds on a Wire duo. Over the self-titled début in 2014 and the follow up Ramages in 2020, the pair has been “revisiting with great passion a timeless and international songbook of traditional, classical, folk and contemporary ballads.”

Featuring ten original instrumentals and borrowing its name from the affectionate nickname Dom la Nena gave her cello in her youth, Leon is the musician’s fourth solo album and was released on Sabia Records on 7 April 2023 last.

Dom la Nena - Leon (2023)
Dom la Nena – Leon (2023)

“Leon” is not an expensive antique cello from a master maker. It remains Dom la Nena’s original learner instrument for which the musician developed an emotional attachment from the outset. In this context, the perceived limitations of a beginner instrument tend to fit with Dom la Nena’s playing which has gradually matured from a purely classical style to a pop music-inflected approach which can involve a loop pedal in a live setting.

Recorded over a two-month period in her home studio, Leon is both a solo album and a choral and multi-tracked undertaking with the musician superimposing melodic, counter melodic, rhythmic, harmonic and wordless vocal parts.

Opening the record, “Universo” for instance emulates the sound of a classical quartet or quintet including staccato or pizzicato rhythmic motifs and melodic or harmonic lines that would normally be performed by a first, a second violin and a viola. There are also cello bass lines of course – plucked and bowed – and as the musician repeats the main melody, cello parts are overdubbed.

Dom la Nena also plays around with ranges, tones and timbre throughout, turning the performance into a very physical experience. Already personified from the outset, Leon, progresses like a series of poignant interior monologues such as the superb “Last Day” or “Pausa”. The ethereal wordless vocals on several tracks provide either additional harmony and turn the compositions into canons – a beloved compositional technique which can be heard throughout her body of work – or they take on the role of the Greek Chorus, commenting implicitly on the dramatic action. On the concluding “Longe”, an eerie high-pitched and distorted melodic line almost morphs into an operatic aria. With the groundwork for the multi-tracked musical arrangements already laid out in the studio, the live performances of the album will involve a string quartet.

The compositions on Leon tap into Dom la Nena’s personal experience as a touring artist constantly on the road as well as on her vast knowledge of the South American and European song traditions. Silent movies are a major source of inspiration too. Three compositions stem from Dom La Nena’s participation to a 2021 residency at the Musée d’Orsay which organized a series of exhibitions around the origins of cinema as a modern art form at the turn of the 20th century. “Universo”, “Dulac” and “Arabesque” for instance are based on existing shorts by Germaine Dulac, a pioneering feminist French filmmaker who released several landmark and surrealist silent films in the 1920s and 1930s.

“We give value and attention to so many things,” observed the musician when introducing her previous 2021 opus Tempo, “but we forget the essentials: our time and focus, being present, which is the most precious thing we have.” In essence, Leon is flawless collection of elaborate compositions from a master cellist living in the present and animated with a deep artistic sensibility.