American Routes Shortcuts: Leyla McCalla

Apr 12, 2019

Leyla McCalla
Credit American Routes

Cellist and folk singer Leyla McCalla was raised in New Jersey by Haitian immigrant parents. She picked up the cello as a young student, and after studying performance and chamber music at NYU, Leyla left New York for New Orleans and began busking and exploring cultural connections between Louisiana and Haiti, with Creole tunes, Haitian rhythms and instruments, adding Cajun fiddle melodies, traditional jazz banjo and folk songs from both regions. Now a mother of three, Leyla reflected on her mother and father. 

Leyla McCalla: My parents are Haitian immigrants. They immigrated during the Duvalier regime in the ‘60s. Both of my parents have worked in human rights and activism for Haitian human rights for years. I think my parents really wanted me to recognize my Haitian identity, which is challenging, you know, when you’re raising a kid in the United States. And so it’s been interesting for me because I think a lot of what has motivated my work is to try to connect to that, to try to understand. 

Nick Spitzer: To reach back in. 

LM: Yeah to fill in all the gaps in my knowledge and things that I never learned from my parents. 

NS: How did you find the cello? 

LM: The cello found me. I did not know what a cello was, but basically not enough signed up to play cello, and I got stuck. You know I consider it the happiest accident of my life. 

NS: At what point do you see, or is there a key point where with the cello you say, hey I could be doing other things with the cello beyond the classical repertoire? 

LM: So, a couple things happen. I studied with an amazing cellist named André Emelianoff, who really elevated my cello playing and made me feel like I wanted to be a classical performer. And then I was invited to a party by my aunt when I was 18 years old in Brooklyn, and there was a band called the Vodou Drums of Haiti. And it was my first time seeing the cello being played in that context by a cellist named Rufus Cappadocia, who lives in New York and who is one of my mentors, and I was just like, that is an option? Why am I not doing that? And I think that that really set me on this path that I’m on now. 

NS: It does feel like your sense of complex identity and where do you fit in has taken flight in The Capitalist Blues. Tell me about the title track, I mean that is both jazz and it’s also protest. That song to me is kind of a tragic comedy. 

LM: Well, I wrote this song just thinking about that pressure to be successful and have more things and how many people struggle with just being stable. And so I was really thinking about those things and asking myself on a personal level, just why do I want to be a musician, why is this the right thing, and when other people start profiting off of the act of creating music, what does that do to the soul? What does that do to your spirit? 

NS: This project Our Native Daughters, it’s beautiful and everybody on the cover has got a banjo. 

LM: Yeah and I’m pregnant with twins on that cover. 

NS: So a banjo and more! Tell me, who is involved here. 

LM: Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and Allison Russell.

NS: There is something very powerful about four women of color standing with banjos resolutely on the cover. 

LM: Yeah, you know it’s interesting, I read an interview that Alli did about this project, this album, and she talks about the tokenism of festival organizers or presenters being like, “Okay we’re gonna have one black banjo player and if it’s a woman then great.” So to be four of us together and be saying there should be more of us, and there are more of us, I think is an important statement to be making in this day and age. 

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