New York-born Haitian-American multi-instrumentalist Leyla McCalla is the fifth and final featured artist in our Black History Month tribute to musicians at the forefront of the work to reclaim the African American contributions to folk, old-time, country and roots music. I kicked off the series with my January tribute to Amythyst Kiah and then celebrated throughout February the music of Rhiannon Giddens, followed by Dom Flemons, Otis Taylor, and last week’s artist, Keb’ Mo’.
McCalla grew up in the cultural mix of New York City but relocated to Accra, Ghana for two years while a teenager. She returned to the States to study cello performance and chamber music at NYU. Taking that knowledge—and “armed with Bach’s Cello Suites”—she left to play cello on the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans. There she sang in French, Haitian Creole, and English, and played cello, tenor banjo and guitar. McCalla spent two years and gained greater fame as cellist of the Grammy award-winning African-American string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, alongside bandmates Giddens and Flemons. She left the group in 2013 to pursue her solo career.
I’ll begin this look at a small sample of McCalla’s music with the Haitian love song Rose-Marie, which she sings in this video from Delfest with the Chocolate Drops. Little Sparrow is a beautiful and sorrowful tune from the 2016 solo album A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey. “Through deeply felt originals and interpretations of traditional songs,” her website notes, “the album depicts a diverse American experience and Leyla’s struggles with and acceptance of her own cultural identity.”
The witty official video of the tune Money Is King is from her 2018 album Capitalist Blues. The song highlights McCalla’s incorporation of traditional Creole, Cajun and Haitian music into her contemporary work. With this record, it has been suggested that McCalla is processing the current political environment in her own way. NPR noted that the album
“…imaginatively maps her vision of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora while gently taking Anglocentricism (and capitalism) down a notch. She’s partly in the moment and partly looking beyond it, and seeing truths that we’ve missed.”
Singing with Our Native Daughters, McCalla’s tune I Knew I Could Fly is based on an Etta Baker-style Piedmont Blues. I love this video because it has short explanations from McCalla on her the creative process interspersed with the music.
To close out this Black History Month special series, I’ll quote NPR again, to remind us of the importance of this work.
“The roots-music scene can display assimilationist tendencies, too, but it’s also home to a small but growing number of artists — including Leyla McCalla and her sometime bandmate Rhiannon Giddens, Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra, Dom Flemons and Kaia Kater — who don’t stand by and accept the whitewashing of culturally distinct origins. Instead, their work does the intellectual labor of clarifying; of reconnecting the dots, reconstructing context, retelling and sometimes personalizing neglected stories.”
McCalla’s upcoming tours include the premier of Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever in Durham, North Carolina, on March 4-6. She’s also performing at Ginny’s Supper Club in New York City on April 1st, and at the New Orleans JazzFest on April 30th.
More to come…