Born in New-York, raised in New-Jersey and relocating to New Orleans in 2010, Leyla McCalla is a young Haitian American singer songwriter accompanying herself on the cello, banjo and guitar. Following a remarkable first album (Vari-Colored Songs – 2014) which revisited the words of African American poet Langston Hughes with new original music, the musician returns with a new collection released on Jazz Village in May 2016 last. As illustrated by the cover photographs, A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey is firmly rooted in the bayous of Louisiana. All the songs on the album reveal a constant quest for the musician’s own identity and further explore the cultural links between the Southern State and the French Caribbean traditions. Singing in English, French and Creole, the album features covers, new compositions and traditional Haitian songs.
In addition to her guitar and banjo playing, Leyla McCalla’s unconventional use of the cello transpires even further on the album where she alternates between traditional bowing techniques, plucking the strings like a guitar or using the cello as a purely rhythmic instrument on the title track.
Elsewhere on the album, the musician and her backing band (banjo, triangle, fiddle and viola, bass) navigate effortlessly between the various idioms making up the rich Louisiana musical tapestry with uncluttered arrangements of Cajun songs, Zydeco music, traditional Creole songs of Haitian origins and contemporary folk-style compositions. The use of the sousaphone throughout (the brass instrument commonly played by marching bands) or of the cornet on “Fey-O” and “Minis Azaka” further anchor Leyla McCalla’s music in a New Orleans soundscape. Prestigious guests such as Rihannon Giddens or Marc Ribot among others also lend vocals or electric guitar on “Manman” and “Peze Café” respectively.
But more importantly, the choice of covers on the album places a strong emphasis on the significant influence of several Black, Louisiana Creole or French Caribbean musicians on the regional repertoires and styles of the American Deep South and by extension on her own music.
There is a magnificent reprise of American singer songwriter Ella Jenkins’s “Little Sparrow”, a song that originally appeared on Rhythms of Childhood (1963) or a cover of “Vietnam”, a song from folk blues singer songwriter Abner Jay (1921 – 1993). The album also features compositions from two Creole fiddle players – Canray Fontenot (1922 – 1995) and Joseph “Bébé” Carrière (1908 – 2011) – both stalwarts of the rural Zydeco styles. Then harking back to her own roots, Leyla McCalla revisits several traditional Haitian songs such as the superb “Peze Café” or an original composition from Haitian singer songwriter and political activist Manno Charlemagne (“Manman”).
As for the title track of the album, A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey borrows its title from both a Haitian proverb and a book by American ethnomusicologist Gage Averill published in 1997. In A Day for the Hunter, A day for the Prey – Popular Music and Power in Haiti, the author explores the complex interplay between popular music, power and politics in Haiti throughout the 20th century.
I wrote the song thinking about Haitian boat people, refugees who travel by boat from Haiti to the United States, and the vulnerability and desperation of that position. Even though that’s a specific source of inspiration, we’re seeing the same struggle with the Syrians heading to Greece and we’ve been seeing it all over the world for a long time. I felt that this proverb really captures the essence of the Haitian spirit, which to me is very linked to the struggle for human rights and political sovereignty. Leyla McCalla – NPR interview
More than a selection of folk songs, Leyla McCalla’s A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey subtly tracks the legacy of Haiti’s post-colonial independence struggles and its cultural echoes in the United States and further afield.