Updated: Dec 31, 2020
A Haitian-American who sings in French, Haitian Creole and English, McCalla plays cello, tenor banjo and guitar. Deeply influenced by traditional Creole, Cajun and Haitian music, as well as by American jazz and folk, her music is at once earthy and elegant, soulful and witty, vibrating with three centuries of history.
Offbeat calls her songs “ambitious, deep and gorgeous,” while the Boston Globe describes her sound as “at once varnished and sparse, like field recordings in high definition.” Born in New York City to Haitian immigrants, McCalla experienced a renewed sense of connection with her Haitian heritage after moving to the Crescent City in 2010. “I feel very at home here,” she says. “The more I learned about the history of Louisiana, its ties to Haiti and French-speaking culture, the more sense of belonging I felt and continue to feel.” The relocation led to her appearance on the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Grammy-nominated Leaving Eden, as well as extensive concert dates as a touring member of the group. It also deeply enriched Leyla’s own music and sharpened her sense of purpose.
Haitian-American artist, Leyla McCalla is a founding member of Our Native Daughters & alumna of the GRAMMY award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Leyla McCalla’s latest album, Vari-Colored Songs is a celebration of the complexity of Black culture and identity, and a tribute to the legacy of poet and thinker Langston Hughes.
Leyla McCalla’s Vari-Colored Songs is a celebration of the complexity of Black culture and identity, and a tribute to the legacy of poet and thinker Langston Hughes. A songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, McCalla sets Hughes’ poems to her own spare yet profound compositions. She juxtaposes these with arrangements of folk songs from Haiti, the first independent Black nation and the homeland of her parents, tapping into the nuances of Black experience. McCalla’s music elegantly weaves Haitian influences together with American folk music, just as Hughes incorporated Black vernacular into his remarkable poetry, and the way the Haitian Kreyòl is a beacon for the survival of African identity through the brutal legacy of colonialism. This is music of reclamation, imbued with a quiet power that grapples with the immense weight of history.
Vari-Colored Songs had a limited release in 2013, with the New York Times proclaiming that “[McCalla’s] magnificently transparent music holds tidings of family, memory, solitude and the inexorability of time: weighty thoughts handled with the lightest touch imaginable.” The recording is being brought to a wider audience by Smithsonian Folkways at a time when the history McCalla explores is more relevant than ever. As she states in the album’s liner notes, “The wisdom and truth that Langston Hughes continues to provide us through his prolific output inspires us to celebrate the assumedly mundane and stigmatized parts of our society. The future has always been uncertain, and it has always been up to us to push for the changes that we want to see in the world.”
Leyla McCalla stops by Tigermen's Den in New Orleans in celebration of her new Folkways release, 'Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes.’
Leyla McCalla Sings 'The Capitalist Blues' With Feeling and Wisdom
Produced by New Orleans R&B band King James & the Special Men frontman Jimmy Horn and released on 25 January 2019 last on the Jazz Village label, The Capitalist Blues is Leyla McCalla's third solo album
The Capital Blues, her third album, imaginatively maps her vision of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora and summons bodily, social and emotional wisdom through its dance music, gently taking Anglocentricism down a notch in the process. The Haitian-American singer-songwriter has said that moving to New Orleans nearly a decade ago helped her connect more viscerally to historical Haitian Creole resilience and musical expression. She's spent the years since primarily accompanying herself on cello — using it as a choppy, churning rhythm instrument rather than a lyrical one — in bilingual contemporary folk ballads and string-band compositions. This time, she laid her cello aside in favor of electric guitar and tenor banjo and enlisted an R&B-reviving veteran of the New Orleans club scene, Jimmy Horn of King James & the Special Men, to produce. A rotating cast of musicians — including specialists in the living traditions of various Haitian, Brazilian, Cajun, zydeco and calypso styles — supplies the feels and textures she wanted.