Born in New-York, Leyla McCalla is a classically-trained cellist, banjo and guitar player of Haitian descent. After years of freelancing and teaching the cello, the musician’s decision to move to New Orleans, Louisiana in 2010 proved decisive for her career. The outcome of five years of research and financed through a very successful Kickstarter campaign, Leyla McCalla’s début solo album Vari-Colored Songs was released in February 2014. Devised as a tribute to African American poet and activist Langston Hughes, the album also explores the musician’s heritage and her connection with the Black Southern and French Caribbean traditions.

Leyla McCalla - Vari-Colored Songs (2014)
Leyla McCalla – Vari-Colored Songs (2014)

Relocating to New-Orleans “gave a new lease on life to my creative soul” said the musician. Earning a living teaching music, playing Bach cello suites in the streets of the French Quarter and backing musicians in local bands, Leyla McCalla quickly became part of NOLA’s vibrant multi-cultural melting pot where countless musical traditions keep cross-pollinating and influencing each other.

Busking a classical repertoire surrounded by folk and jazz music also led to several fruitful collaborations. Leyla McCalla met with North Carolina-based Music Maker Foundation for instance. She also started working with string band revival group Carolina Chocolate Drops and ended up touring extensively with them. The band invited her to guest on Leaving Eden (2012), their second record for the Nonesuch label.

What makes Leyla McCalla’s sound unique is her cello style. Citing American cellist Rufus Cappadocia as a major influence, the musician applies guitar and banjo techniques to her cello playing, strumming and plucking the strings on many songs.

I like having a fat cello sound, or just really a delicate sound […] I like that presence, I like that fierceness. I feel there is a good amount of practice and polishing involved, but there is also raw spirit – and I want to be able to capture both of those things. I think that that’s what makes me feel fulfilled. Leyla McCalla

The music on Vari-Colored Songs reflects all these varied influences and connections and alludes to old-time Cajun, Bluegrass, blues, jazz and folk. Featured on the album are several Haitian folk songs sung in creole such as “Kamèn Sa W Fè?”, “Mamman Mwen”, “Latibonit” or the wonderful “Mesi Bondye”, a traditional Thanksgiving song accompanied on the tenor banjo.

Growing up surrounded by Langston Hughes’ books at home, Leyla McCalla was deeply affected by the words of the poet and set to revisit his work by setting eight of his poems to new music.

Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967) was a prolific African American writer, poet and social activist who became a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, the literary and artistic movement which promoted a new black cultural identity in the 1920s and 1930s. Always open to innovative forms of expression, the writer collaborated with several jazz musicians and went on the record an LP (Weary Blues in 1958) where he read his poetry to the music of Charles Mingus and Leonard Feather.

With a predilection for blues themes, the selection of Hughes’ poems on Vari-Colored Songs also touches on Civil Rights activism with the stark and chilling “Song for a Dark Girl” for instance.

With minimal arrangement and sparse accompaniment on bass, pedal steel guitar or vocals – Carolina Chocolate Drops’ lead singer Rihannon Giddens shares vocals with Leyla McCalla on three songs on the album – Vari-Colored Songs is an enchanting and timeless collection.

[Update 19 Oct. 2020]

Leyla McCalla’s Vari-Colored Songs was remastered and re-released on 16th October 2020 on the prestigious Smithsonian Folkways Recordings label. The album also gets a first vinyl release. An impressive collection of songs which has grown in stature since its original release, Vari-Colored Songs also underlines the lasting influence of Langston Hughes’ poetry.

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