Former member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and now forging a successful solo career, Leyla McCalla is a hugely talented singer and musician who has recently released Vari-Colored Songs, an outstanding album of bluesy, rootsy folk songs. A New Yorker who has migrated to New Orleans, drawn by the music and a more expansive lifestyle, she is a classically trained celloist, who is equally at home on the banjo, and has a singing voice you could listen to all day.
Vari-Colored Songs is a remarkable piece of work, combining as it does the poetry of Langston Hughes and folk songs from Haiti, where McCalla’s family hails from. She showcases her song-writing skills in the delightful melodies composed for Hughes’s poems, her arrangements of the folk song material is masterful, and her work on the banjo, fiddle and cello, the latter revealed as a remarkable rhythmic accompaniment, shows great versatility and skill. It’s a very fine album indeed, and one which you grow to appreciate more with each listen.
It’s also an important album lyrically, especially right now, when issues of race and justice are increasingly to the fore, in the United States and elsewhere. Down at the Crossroads had the opportunity to speak to Ms. McCalla about her music and the album.
I asked her, first of all, about her career as a musician. She studied cello performance and chamber music at New York University, before moving to New Orleans, where she began busking on the streets of the French Quarter. I wondered just what made her move from that more classical, formal side of music to the sort of roots music that she now plays.
She told me that at college she had begun to meet interesting musicians from outside of the worlds of both classical music and pop music, who were exploring different textures, improvisation and music from different parts of the world, which she found very attractive. And when she encountered a group called the Voodoo Drums of Haiti, she encountered the cello for the first time in the context of Haitian music.
That she found “just mind blowing. I felt really drawn to exploring that further. And that’s kind of how it began. But I also worked as a cocktail waitress in Brooklyn and it really spoke to all types of different music and different ways of being a musician. I felt like in college, they sort of indoctrinate you, where you think that there’s one way you can be successful. And there’s a sort of reverence for a Western European conceptualization of what music actually is. And when I didn’t identify with it, all of these things kind of amalgamated, to turn me away from the classical world.”
At college, when she got serious about classical music Leyla realized she wanted to be a professional musician, but her “idea of what that would look like changed over time, because I realized that the models that I was aspiring to didn’t really apply to me or to the world I lived in.”
So she moved to New Orleans, which became formative thing in her musical journey. “I think I left New York because I kind of felt energetically detached from the hustle of just living to pay your rent. And I felt I wasn’t really inspired at all by being there. And I kind of thought, I don’t know if this is what my life is about, you know, just struggling to survive.”
She became a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which sought to revive the sound of the African American string band, and whose 2010 album, Genuine Negro Jig, won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album. After leaving the band in 2013, she released her first solo album, Vari-Colored Songs – last year’s album of the same name is a reissue, albeit with one extra song added. I asked Leyla why she had decided to reissue.
“Well, you know, the Smithsonian were in touch with me for a quite a while, very interested in re-releasing the album. They were very excited about acquiring the album as part of their African-American legacy collection. I kind of went back and forth deciding, is this really the right thing? And ultimately, I kind of felt like a lot of the songs don’t really belong to me, because there’s some poetry and it’s a tribute to Langston Hughes. And he’s one of the most venerated poets in the United States. So, I decided it was indeed the right thing.
“And it’s interesting how those creative decisions kind of coincide with what’s happening in the world, you know? And so as I was getting ready to release this record, there was momentum building in the black lives matter movement, and there were protests throughout the United States – people seeing the iniquity in our society laid bare by this pandemic. And I think that the moment was just really right for this record to kind of have its second day in the sun.”
I, probably like many others, hadn’t heard the album first time around, and hearing it now, with all that is going on, it feels like an important contribution to the conversation that ought to be going on about racial justice. Part of this is down to the songs on the album which put music to the words of Langston Hughes. Not being an American, I was really unfamiliar with Hughes’s work until recently when I read Adam Gussow’s book Whose Blues? Facing Up to Race and The Future of Music. In dealing sensitively with the issue of race in the blues, Gussow discusses not only the lyrics of blues songs, but the literature of the blues, the work of Zora Neale Hurston, W C Handy, and, of course, Langston Hughes. [catch our interview with Adam Gussow here]
Hughes was an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist who was influential in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, which sought to highlight the real lives of black people in the lower social-economic strata. His work, which portrays the rich variety of their lives – consisting not just of struggle, but also joy, laughter, and music – is permeated with pride in African-American identity and its diverse culture. I asked Leyla why she thought Hughes’ work was still important.
“Well, I think that for me, it all comes down to narrative. Langston Hughes was someone who was really committed to telling stories as a way to increase people’s empathy, and to try to elevate black culture to its rightful place in our society, the culture being disparaged and seen as less than white American culture. And from what I read about him, in the thirties, once he starts to travel outside of the United States and starts to see that his blackness means different things in different places, and that when he was outside the US, he had certain levels of access in society, he started to be able to see more properly the situation in the States. And beyond his poetry, he also wrote articles, children’s books, he was an absolutely prolific artist and he was deeply committed to using simple language, to get people to relate to these issues that he illuminated in his work.”
McCalla’s setting for one of Hughes’ poems, Too Blue, is terrific. It’s got an old-timey blues vibe, helped along by Luke Winslow King’s fine slide guitar, and it really captures some of the humour in the song. The speaker in the poem is considering ending it all with a gun, but wonders if it’ll take one or two bullets, given his head is so hard.
Leyla said, “It’s kind of a dark sense of humour, but it’s just that propensity for survival under extremely stressful or sad conditions. I guess that’s what music is also about. And I like that kind of humour myself, you know, it’s something that I can relate to. I definitely laugh singing that song these days cause I’m kinda like, ‘Oh, this is pretty dark!’”
There’s a new song on this reissue, As I Grew Older / Dreamer, that combines a couple of Hughes’s poems. It features the poems being recited, rather than sung, against the background of an ominous sounding cello, which is then joined by a violin.
That recording, Leyla told me, “came from the original demo that I did before I left New York. I had a friend who said, they songs are really great and I have a little studio set up and I could help you record them, I’m forever grateful for that, And you know, it was at the time that I really didn’t know that I was a singer. I had all these musical inclinations that I wanted to explore. For the voice on Too Blue, I ended up asking a friend of mine, Yah Supreme, and I think he did just such a beautiful job. He’s a hip-hop artist based out of Brooklyn and I also just really appreciated the presence of a black male voice on the record. Having that presence on the album just made it more powerful.”
The album not only has the Langston Hughes songs, but a number of Haitian folk songs, some of them sung in Creole, all of them quite beautiful. I wondered what is the link on the album between these two sets of songs?
“Well, I think the real link is me! But also, I feel like there’s so much wisdom in Hughes’s poetry and then there’s all this wisdom in old Haitian folk songs. So, to pair them next to each other, to me, it’s like they come from the same well. But also, Hughes’s book, I Wonder As I Wander begins in Haiti and he was very impacted by his trip to Haiti.” The book is a humorous and insightful reflection on the people and places Hughes encountered during his world travels through dictatorships, wars, and revolutions during the 1930’s.
McCalla’s family background, of course is in Haiti. I asked her how important that is for her music?
“It’s become increasingly important. I feel the deeper I delve into understanding Haiti and Haiti’s history and culture, especially as an American born of Haitian descent, the more I start to understand the political situation that we find ourselves in in our country. And the more I understand the anti-blackness that I have been grappling with, the anti-blackness in our society that I have been grappling with my whole life in the United States and elsewhere. I mean, all over the world – I have lived in Africa, and there are women there bleaching their skin. So for me, I start to see all those connections.”
McCalla suggested we need to understand Haiti and what it says about the promise of a liberated black state. Haiti’s late eighteenth-century revolution, led by freed slaves, set it from French dominion and it became the world’s first country to abolish slavery and be led by former slaves. A liberated black state, said McCalla, is “something that we still haven’t been able to accept in our world. And that’s at the crux of a lot of my work.”
McCalla says that her knowledge of Haitian history and culture has deepened her perspective on “blackness, politics and social dynamics.” All of this plays directly into her art, not least the Native Daughters project. Our Native Daughters, consisting of Rhiannon Giddens, Allison Russell, Amythyst Kiah and Leyla, released an outstanding album on the Smithsonian Folkways label in early 2019, which address issues which affect black women, including slavery, racism and sexism. [Our interview with Allison Russell is here]
“Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s in a lot of the work that I’ve done – the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and certainly with the Native Daughters, we speak pretty explicitly about the role of black women in shaping the United States. But I feel that that conversation is always kind of present, you know, and I think Haiti is very much a part of that conversation.”
Leyla McCalla clearly feels it’s important for her as an artist not just to entertain, but to participate in the conversation, the protest, that’s going on in America about race. She said, “I don’t know if I’d be doing the work, making the music that I’m making without seeing it all through this historical lens. That is so much a part of why I am drawn to the stories that I’m interested in telling, and weaving into a song.
“I hope I can offer a perspective that some people may not have been considered, but I’m also just really interested in a conversation about why things are the way they are in the world. I don’t feel that music is this sterile environment. I don’t believe that we can be apolitical. There’s a lot of people who say you need to leave politics out of their music. But to me, that’s a political statement in and of itself.”
One song on Vari-Colored Songs in particularly arresting. Song for a Dark Girl is very stark, and utterly compelling. It’s about a lynching “way down in Dixie,” and you can’t help but hear echoes of Strange Fruit. The whole feel of the song with its insistent finger-picked riff and the way that McCalla captures the tragedy of the scene with her voice is at times almost harrowing. It’s a song that needs to be widely heard. I asked her what it feels like to perform the song.
“I mean, it’s always intense, because the song is extremely intense, but it feels important because not only is lynching still happening, but we need to continue to talk about this history. We’re doing ourselves a disservice, we’re doing our children a disservice, if we don’t talk about it, and try to pretend that that is the past. But feels very present.” McCalla went on to talk about the “police brutality in our country” which, “even if it’s not explicit lynching… is essentially the same thing. It’s still present.”
Song for a Dark Girl doesn’t just highlight the brutality of being lynched, but, with the young woman in the song seeing her lover hanging from the tree, it also puts the spotlight on the pain it causes to others. “One of the main things I see is that our society is attuned to thinking about black pain, but not black love. So I feel like this song speaks to that as well. Black people are not generally seen as capable of feeling the same gut emotion as white people.”
Finally, I asked Leyla what projects she might have in mind for this coming year, even though it’s very hard to look forward with the pandemic raging.
“Well, I feel very lucky. I’ve recorded my fourth album and I’m waiting for the right label partner to come along. The album is inspired by the history of Radio Haiti. Its history culminates in the assassination of the radio station director – there’s a film called The Agronomist made by Jonathan Demme about it. [The Agronomist is a 2003 American documentary about Jean Dominique. It follows the life of Dominique, who ran Haiti’s first independent radio station, Radio Haiti-Inter, during multiple repressive regimes.] I’ve been commissioned to make a multimedia performance piece about this. And the album is all the songs that came from that commitment and a few other songs. It’s very exciting. I’m hoping it will be out later this year, but we’ll see.”
That sounds like something to look forward to. In the meantime, get yourself a copy of Vari-Colored Songs and enjoy the immense talent that is the remarkable Leyla McCalla.