Cellist Leyla McCalla’s Folk Music with Jazz Roots


Leyla McCalla

(Photo: Courtesy leylamccalla.com)

Leyla McCalla is a Haitian-American folksinger, cello player, banjoist and songwriter. She picked up the cello when she was 8 years old and took classical training at Smith College and NYU. Her parents are social activists and moved the family to Ghana for two years during her high school years. Being immersed in African culture planted the seeds of the music McCalla is playing now: an invigorating blend of Haitian folk songs and American old-time music.

After college, she began developing her hybrid folk-jazz style, working as a cocktail waitress at Zebulon in New York City to support herself between gigs.

“Zebulon was a club that presented music from all genres and jazz traditions,” she said. “The musicians I met there became my friends and mentors, but I felt like I had to leave New York to find my musical identity.”

She moved to New Orleans, joined the Carolina Chocolate Drops and made her first solo effort, Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes (Music Maker). It got rave reviews and set the stage for her new album, A Day For The Hunter, A Day For The Prey (Jazz Village), an exploration of the Haitian folk and troubadour music that influenced the sound of New Orleans, as well as her own original songs, due out May 27.

DownBeat caught up with McCalla to discuss her new album and musical influences.

Downbeat: Tell us about the process behind A Day For The Hunter, A Day For The Prey.

Leyla McCalla: The title is from a Haitian proverb and became the umbrella theme for the album. The album is about how to survive and still be connected to your humanity, despite all the crazy things happening in the world. The songs on my first album [Vari-Colored Songs] took five years to evolve. I wasn’t sure if it was an album or a collection of songs. This was a more pointed process. It was focused on the way New Orleans impacted the musical and cultural history of Louisiana and America.

I went deep into the history of traditional music—Cajun and Haitian Creole songs—from Louisiana. Most of the tracking was live, but in isolation. We could all see each other, but we were in booths for the mixing. It’s risky, but I love working that way. It forces you to get the right feel. We hunkered down and recorded it in three days.

Did moving to New Orleans have any influence on your music?

In New York, I was trying to figure out the music I wanted to be playing and what it might sound like. I was in a couple of bands, but nothing serious until the Drops, although I was making my living with music. I played in an Afrobeat band, the Fu Orchestra, with Martín Perna from Antibalas. He’s a kung fu teacher and mixed West African music with lion dance rhythms from China. I was also in Medicine Woman with all my musician girl friends.

In New Orleans, I played classical music on the streets and composed a lot of the pieces for Vari-Colored Songs. I knew they were a project, but wasn’t sure it was going to be an album. Tim Duffy, from the Music Maker Relief Foundation, [an organization dedicated to preserving Southern Roots music and supporting senior artists in need], heard me and said he wanted to be my manager. He introduced me to the Carolina Chocolate Drops and helped me realize my first album. He taught me a lot about how the music industry works.

Did joining the Chocolate Drops change your direction, or had you been moving toward a folky singer/songwriter style? Were you aware of African American string band traditions?

I was aware of black old-time music, mostly because of the Drops. Playing with them, I started to understand the history behind it. It didn’t change my direction, but it accelerated it. Having conversations with bandmates about the music and the artistry behind it was eye-opening and inspiring. They were my heroes and it was so cool I got to work with them.

Where do the jazz influences in your music come from?

Jazz is inescapable in New Orleans. I fell in love with traditional jazz after moving here. The Lindy Hop and swing dancing are a big part of the culture of New Orleans. Jazz is at the forefront of freedom for a lot of black musicians. It permeates everything. It’s a way of life, in a manner of speaking. It’s part of my music, even though I play folk music and come from a classical background. People may not hear it in my playing, but it’s there in my approach to improvisation and arranging. It’s a big part of the history of New Orleans.

What’s next? Are you working on a new album?

I’m writing songs, but not working on a new album. An album has a theme you want to present, so you write and write and write before you realize what it is that you’re trying to figure out. Musically speaking, I like to know what I’m going to say before I start saying it.

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