It feels like everyone’s in a pressure cooker in this country

Born in New-York City of Haitian parents, cellist, banjo player and singer songwriter Leyla McCalla settled in New-Orleans in 2010. As time goes by, Leyla McCalla’s music is digging ever so deeper into the kaleidoscopic cultural diversity of the Deep South. 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.

Leyla McCalla - The Capitalist Blues (2019)
Leyla McCalla – The Capitalist Blues (2019)

The musician started her career as a busker in the streets of New Orleans, playing Bach suites on the cello or singing folk and roots songs accompanying herself on the banjo. She then joined string band revival group Carolina Chocolate Drops (alongside Rhiannon Giddens) before embarking on a solo career. Her 2014 Vari-Color Songs is a heartfelt tribute to the poetry of Haitian-born activist Langston Hughes while A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey (2016) explored the singer’s Haitian-Creole roots in the wider context of the Louisiana music scene.

Earlier this year, alongside banjo players Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, and Allison Russell, Leyla McCalla was also involved in the Songs of our Native Daughters project for Smithonian Folkways Recordings. Partly inspired by slave narratives collected from the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, Songs of our Native Daughters features 12 new songs and was released on 22 February 2019 last. Shining a new light on sketchy African American records, all songs “confront sanitized views about America’s history of slavery, racism, and misogyny from a powerful, black female perspective.”

The Capitalist Blues

These songs are my reflection on motherhood, womanhood, activism and spirit. They are me seeing more clearly the cost to humanity in placing value in capital over human life.

The blues has always been lingering beneath the surface in Leyla McCalla’s music. “I’ve got the sad and old weary blues…” she sang in Too Blue from her 2014 début. As a means of expression though, blues singing is perhaps too often considered as a historical or traditional musical form dealing with everyday struggles in the past tense. Motherhood was probably what prompted the singer to take on the mantle of a 21st century protest singer and activist on the album.

The title song of course as well as a cover of Trinidadian singer Neville Marcano’s “Money is King” deal with the difficulty to make ends meet in a contemporary consumer society where never-ending economic growth is the dominant narrative and where wealth is a privilege.

“The Capitalist Blues” / “Lavi Vye Neg”

“I feel that we are hitting a boiling point in our American culture and in our society. We really are in a moment of reckoning with our true values and our true desires” notes the singer introducing the new record.

“Heavy as Lead” laments the worrying increase in environmental pollution while “Aleppo” deplores our helplessness at the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Syria. But The Capitalist Blues is also replete with songs of resilience, drawing energy form the extraordinary vitality of a multi-faceted and multicultural NOLA community.

Like on her two previous albums, Leyla McCalla sings several songs in creole – either self-penned (“Mize Pa Dous”) or covers from Haitian singer Jean Gesner Henry (“Lavi Vye Neg”), while the prayer for peace “Penha” – a composition by Brazilian singer Luiz Gonzaga – was adapted into Creole from Portuguese.

For the first time, Leyla McCalla drops the cello entirely in favour of banjo and electric guitar. However, an impressive line-up of guest musicians – Shannon Powell (percussion), Carl LeBlanc (guitar), Louis Michot (fiddle) and Corey Ledet (accordion) among many others – stir a wonderfully diverse musical concoction.

More than likely inspired by the hand-sewn and beaded costumes of the Mardi Gras Indians, the cover artwork pays homage to New-Orleans’ cultural melting pot. From blues to New-Orleans jazz, from Cajun to Zydeco, from Boogie-Woogie to Calypso, from soul to rock, The Capitalist Blues effortlessly navigates through all the musical styles heard and played in the Crescent City. The album concludes with “Settle Down”, a collaborative effort with Haitian roots music collective Lakou Mizik featuring traditional Rara carnival street music rhythms on drums and single note rara cornets or konè.

They say settle down
To keep you from feeling strong
They say settle down
But you know they’re wrong

‘Cuz spirit can’t be controlled
There is no price for your soul