Leyla McCalla is a New Orleans Haitian Creole singer-songwriter who is one of the great American voices.
She is a bridge from the Caribbean music of Haiti and New Orleans to country music of the United States. Yes country music of the United States has African roots. The banjo is an African instrument.
McCalla is a unique artist in that she plays what is clearly “American” country music, but she also takes you back to New Orleans, and takes you all the way back to Haiti. So in McCalla, you can see the root and some of its branches. The music’s relationships are much clearer than if you just compared three different artists.
Leyla McCalla in New York City
Wednesday, April 1, 2020 ~ McCalla plays Ginny’s Supper Club at the Red Rooster in Harlem, NYC from 8-10pm. $30
Leyla McCalla is a New York-born singer-songwriter with a Haitian Creole heritage who lives in New Orleans. A classically-trained musician, she played cello in the Grammy-winning string band The Carolina Chocolate Drops.
McCalla comes from a family of Haitian humanitarians. She spent some of her teenage years in Ghana, studied cello and chamber music at New York University and then moved to New Orleans to play on the streets of the French Quarter.
It’s hard to place her music. She sounds like American folk. She sounds like New Orleans. She sounds like Haiti. Her songs are filled with the poetry and humor of the Caribbean and the U.S. American celebration of the underdog, or maybe that’s the voice of her family of humanitarians.
“It’s okay to be overwhelmed, but don’t let yourself be overcome.”
McCalla is full to the brim with the blues and she can really swing. In her American Creole context, McCalla recalls the Cuban trova protest music of Pepe Sánchez of Cuba, Ileana Cabra (Calle 13) of Puerto Rico , Violeta Parra of Chile, and Bob Dylan and Joan Baez of the United States. Today, women lead the march.
Watching her develop, you see a girl becoming a woman, becoming a goddess. In the simplest of terms, Leyla McCalla is on her way to becoming one of the great American voices.
Follow McCalla at leylamccalla.com
Check out her videos on YouTube.
Leyla McCalla Albums
The Capitalist Blues (2019, Jazz Village/PIAS)
A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey (2016, Jazz Village/harmonia mundi).
McCalla understands how the hunter and the prey are inextricably bound together. You are what you eat. And who is the hunter and who is the prey is not always how it looks to be.
One of the things that’s happening today is that the underprivileged communities of the past are becoming the leaders of global pop culture. It’s our day, a day for the prey.
Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes (2014, Music Makers)
Leyla McCalla by Sarrah Danziger
The beautiful photograph of McCalla by Sarrah Danziger deserves comment.
Being influenced by Cuba, my first reaction was there is Yemayá, the Yoruba goddess of the sea.
But McCalla is also in the Touching the Earth Mudra pose. When Buddha touched the Earth, he accepted the Earth, just as it is. He also stopped the devil from tempting him and found the timelessness inside of time (Cindy Bird, Huffington Post, June 1, 2013).
The sun creating a regal corona or aura behind McCalla suggests the Haitian/New Orleans Vodou/Voodoo god Legba. Legba is the intermediary between the gods and humanity just like Hermes/Mercury, the patron saint of New York who gave fire to humankind. Legba speaks all human languages, just like McCalla blends many traditions.
Don’t fear the West African gods. They are just like the Greek gods. It’s natural for humanity to have many different ways to worship in different places, but we are all trying to understand the same thing. The miracle of being alive is shared by all.
You can recognize many traditions in this one photograph. That’s who we are now, the sum of many in the Americas. That’s also Layla McCalla. Great photo.
It’s taken me years to understand what Creole is.
I always thought Creole was a language developed by slaves and immigrants in their new homelands. Children in multi-lingual communities around the world, develop Creole languages that are a distinct blend of the two-languages in their environment. The human nervous system is intelligent enough to do this spontaneously, anywhere, in any combination. So Creole is that, but in the Caribbean, Creole is a culture.
It’s Creole as in “Criollo,” the Spanish word for children of Europeans born in the Americas. In Spanish, Criollo is now used to describe good folk stuff of the Americas as in “salsa criollo,” meaning American sauce. It means the good, delicious homemade stuff like Moma made.
Creole was the community of high-class African French families in New France. These were the families that ruled those places. Many of the children were educated in Europe. They were the Upper East Siders of the Lower Mississippi Valley and the Caribbean.
During the troubles of the Haitian Revolution, these communities emigrated to the other side of Hispaniola which is now the Dominican Republic, to New Orleans and to the Lesser Antilles.
New Orleans is Creole. Blues is Creole. So all the music that grew out of that: jazz, latin music, rock, funk, salsa, disco, hip-hop and reggaeton have Creole roots too. Even some of the American hillbilly stuff was white folks imitating what black folks were doing on the other side of the tracks. We always have fun, no matter what life brings and everybody wants some of that.
In the United States, this upper-class community was pushed down by Jim Crow after the Civil War of the United States. We weren’t wiped out. None of us were wiped out. We are still here and still contributing to the fabric of America. Since the 1960s, we are starting to take pride in our heritage, thereby breaking our own chains, and finding our own voice. It’s the voice of the Little Sparrow.