World Music Matters

Vari-Colored Songs - Haitian-American cellist sings 20s poet Langston Hughes

Leyla McCalla is a young, talented Haitian-American cellist and singer. She regularly tours with the Grammy-award winning old-time string band Carolina Chocolate Drops and she’s just brought out her first solo album, Vari-Colored Songs - a tribute to 1920s black American poet Langston Hughes. Exploring the music of the US’s Deep South has brought her closer to her Haitian roots, she says.

Leyla McCalla
Leyla McCalla DR

McCalla holds her cello like most people would a guitar.

She’s tall, so that helps her to play it like a guitar too, finger-picking the strings and strumming in the style of a mandolin.

"I think some of my technique on the cello, especially on this album, comes from my guitar-playing,” she says. “I’ve played guitar since I was 13 and that alternating thumb stuff is definitely from learning guitar-picking and the strumming is coming from that as well."

McCalla had a classical musical education, studying cello performance and chamber music at New York University.

When she moved from New York to New Orleans in 2010, she drew a lot of attention playing Bach’s cello suites on the streets.

But the move was also key in extending her repertoire beyond classical and into old-time tunes and Haitian folk songs.

"It’s had a huge impact, it’s part of the reason this album exists," she says.

McCalla’s parents are Haitian emigrants and New Orleans has brought her closer to her Haitian roots.

"Moving to New Orleans and learning about the founding of the city kinda led me back to Haiti," she adds. "Haiti came up so much in everything I read about the founding of the city and the Louisiana Purchase and even American independence and Haitian independence and the revolution in France. It made me realise all these connections."

The album takes in several Haitian folk songs, such as Latibonit, which is also the name of a river and valley in Haiti.

"It’s just so powerful," says McCalla. "You know some American folk songs. Iit’s just like Kumbaya, my Lord, Kumbaya. In Haiti the meaning is so much deeper."

McCalla’s father translated the song for her. It talks about the sun dying, how it "hurts my heart to have to bury the sun". It then has a call and response part that’s common in the Haitian troubadour tradition.

"I felt like it also resonated with all the things I hear about the degradation of the environment in Haiti," she says. "And I have memories of flying in and seeing like these almost bald patches of land. That song hits on a lot of things that are present even though it’s a very old song."

Much of the album is devoted to far more recent works by the African-American poet Langston Hughes. Hughes spearheaded the Harlem renaissance, a literary and artistic movement that fostered a new black cultural identity in 20s and 30s America.

The album Vari-Colored Songs is the name of one of his poems. McCalla set it to music and renamed it Heart of Gold, "a good representation of all the different influences on the album," she says.

McCalla discovered Hughes’s works both at high school and at home where his poetry books and autobiographies could be found lying around.

"I was always struck by the beauty of his poetry and the simplicity of his voices. And also the depth of the meaning of his words," she says.

She started to write music to some of his better-known poems like The Negro speaks of rivers or some blues poems, just after graduating from college.

McCalla says music inspired Hughes to write in the first place so it made sense to set his words to music. But as musicians had already done a lot of work on his writings she "felt it was equally important to have a voice for some of those lesser-known poems".

Langston’s Song for a dark girl, which describes the scene of a lynching in the south, is probably the darkest song on the album, says McCalla.

She recalls reading about Hughes’s poetry tour in the 1930s when as a black artist he wasn’t allowed to use certain bathrooms or stay in certain hotels. And how he would drive extra long hours because there wasn’t a safe place to be late at night in the south.

"That song reminds me of that experience. It’s painful to have to remember that history in the United States. But I think it’s important."

While times have changed, McCalla says Hughes’ experience still speaks to her as an African-American.

"I do feel a connection. It certainly has come up a lot in my work. But it’s very subtle. The racism that we experience today is not as plain to see as it was before but it still exists. A lot of what I’m trying to figure out through my work is trying to understand why it still exists and how to deal with it."

Leyla McCalla plays the New Morning in Paris on 28 October, Theatre du Rocher, La Garde, on 14 November, The Blues Sur Seine festival at Mantes la Jolie on 15 November and Mortagne-du-Nord on 16 November.

Vari-Colored Songs is out on Dixiefrog.

>> Leyla McCalla's official website

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