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Dana Masters on why she feels at peace in Northern Ireland: 'I've always loved it here, LA is so frantic'

By Linda Stewart

American jazz singer Dana Masters, who lives in Lisburn with her Dromore-born husband Andrew, says coming to Northern Ireland helped her fall in love with music again and launch her singing career.

Singer Dana Masters says moving to Northern Ireland was like a breath of fresh air after the frantic pace of life in Los Angeles. Brought up in South Carolina, she met her husband-to-be Andrew Masters at her church in LA - so her move to Northern Ireland seems a whole world away.

Yet she says it was surprisingly easy to settle in - and the Deep South is not as different from here as you might think.

"I've always loved it here. We joke and say I am still waiting to have some kind of culture shock or breakdown because it never happened. The culture is very similar here," the mum-of-three says.

"There was a part of me that felt very at peace here in Northern Ireland. Living in LA, you forget how frantic the city is - you are kind of frantic inside. Moving to Northern Ireland, everything calmed down - there was never a time when I wanted to go somewhere else."

Dana now lives in Lisburn with her husband, pastor Andrew Masters, who was born in Dromore, five-year-old daughter Norr and three-year-old twins Moses and August - and is rapidly making a name for herself as a jazz singer.

Following years of live performances in collaboration with jazz musician Linley Hamilton, the 34-year-old has produced an EP which is available on her website and is working on an album of new material. Meanwhile, she will be playing the Island Arts Centre in Lisburn on March 25.

Dana grew up in a family that was heavily involved in the American civil rights movement.

"I was born and raised in South Carolina in the heart of what they call the Deep South and that was one of the pivotal states around the civil rights era," she says.

"My grandmother, Johnnie Ruth Jenkins, was one of the leaders in the civil rights movement. She had five children and they were all involved when they were very young. So for my mum Sandra Simmons and aunt Brendolyn Jenkins, that was their life growing up. They didn't really do childhood things so much. Their childhood wasn't like what I would have had - summer camps and things like that. It was more serious for them.

"My grandmother was a social worker and at that time in America if you did that sort of work, you had a front row seat to what was going on with the marginalisation in society. The natural thing was for her to become a civil rights activist."

Dana's mum and aunt were among the very first children in the state to integrate into white schools - and it was far from easy for them.

"Black schools were years behind the white schools," Dana explains.

"They got second-hand books from the white schools when they were done with them and that meant there would be pages missing and so on.

"My aunt switched [to a white school] when she was in junior high school and my mother switched when she was in primary school."

Dana says the move was tough and her mum and aunt felt almost like no one liked them any more. There was a certain amount of ambivalence within the black community about moving away from black schools, while many white people were very clear that they didn't want them in their school, including some of the teachers.

"My mum remembers for years being beaten up every day or stuffed into a locker. What stuck out for me was that I know as a mum how hard that would be, but those people knew there was something bigger that needed to be done for generations to come and people you will never know. The idea that you sacrifice something as big as your family is so foreign to us now," Dana says.

In contrast, Dana says her childhood was a happy one, growing up in a middle-class suburb in South Carolina.

"I went to one of the best schools of our state and made great grades. My family were very intentional about the children knowing my mother and my aunt's story and that we were not sheltered from the realities of what happened during that time."

Dana says that even before Martin Luther King day became a national holiday, the children of her family were taken out of the school to mark the occasion. And when it did become a national holiday they always took part in the celebrations and listened to the speeches - although she admits she wasn't always that keen.

"I was always aware that I wasn't allowed to not know that part of my story. When it became a national holiday, my friends got to sleep in and do what they wanted but I was always without fail at the state house listening to Dr King's speeches.

"I feel like I knew him. He was one of the most important figures in modern history.

"It's funny because now when I feel a little bit disheartened at anything that's going on in the world and feel like we are going to hell in a handcart - outside of the scriptures, I will go and listen to Dr King's speeches just to remind myself that there was a time when things were worse and there were people who had hope in that situation. And if they did, then I can have hope in my situation."

Dana says when she was a child she was incredibly introverted.

"I was an only child and I had a very rich imaginative world in my head," she says.

"I was drawn to music. I didn't ever consider doing it professionally but I had a connection to music. I remember now, I would have been six or seven and I was crying in my room because this music was so beautiful. I loved being around it and being swept up in it.

"I listened to absolutely anything and everything, whatever come through that I felt was beautiful. I was raised on Motown and funk and R&B and all that stuff, but that was never the only type of music that tugged at my heartstrings.

"I remember when I was very young I knew every single word of every single song of Les Mis, which is so random. I would listen to it for hours and hours.

"One of my passions in life is human emotion - and that is why I was drawn to music and the arts."

Dana majored in music at university and graduated with honours, before moving to LA to work with a massive real estate company.

"It was in LA that I met my husband who was doing a two year Masters programme in entrepreneurial leadership. We went to the same church," she says.

"I did bits and pieces of music in LA, but I wasn't really drawn to the music industry there. Maybe it was because I've never wanted to be an entertainer and LA is a very 'entertainer' town. If anything being in LA made me go further from wanting to do music."

Dana says she always knew how much Andrew loved Northern Ireland and that if she married him they would inevitably move here.

"A week after I was married, I ended up in Portadown and six months later we moved to Lisburn," she says.

"Moving to Northern Ireland is what pushed me into music actually, and that's not what people would expect."

Dana couldn't work here for a while as she waited on getting her visa and at one point she returned to America to get the paperwork sorted - a trip that turned out to be memorable.

"I ended up going back to America to get my visa when Barack Obama was being inaugurated in 2009, so instead of going home I went to DC and went to the inauguration with my whole family. It felt like a little bit of a full circle for our family," she says.

Once settled in Northern Ireland, Dana taught music in school and also gave private lessons. At one point she did backing vocals for musician Brian Houston and that was to lead to a fateful meeting.

She and Andrew went out to dinner at Bert's Jazz Bar where she was recognised from the stage by Linley Hamilton, also a Radio Ulster presenter, who asked her to come up and sing with him - and that was the start of a fruitful collaboration.

"From that moment, he decided 'this is what you are going to do, I'll make it happen'. I had three children in 18 months and the whole time Linley would call me, tell me we were doing this show up, we're going to this, we're going to do that," she says.

"I didn't want to do it sometimes, I was so tired. But he had the foresight to know it was the right thing to do.

"Then my daughter went to nursery when she was three and I could see light at the end of the tunnel, away from nappies, and a light switch went on in my mind. I knew it was what I wanted to do."

Dana says her new material has jazz influences, but it isn't jazz. She recently did a mini-tour with Linley as part of the Open House festival and has performed her first Dublin gig at the Sugar Club.

She says one of her favourite places in Northern Ireland is the Dromara Hills and they often climb Slieve Croob with the children.

"It's just beautiful and it reminds me why I love this country. To me one of the best parts of Northern Ireland are its people.

"I am so aware of how people have just taken me in and allowed me to call Northern Ireland home - it's that incredible sense of hospitality that exists in Northern Ireland, taken up a notch," she says.

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