bicycle, blues, Carolina Chocolate Drops, cello, Creole, Dixieland, French Quarter, Greensboro, guitar, Heart of Gold, Langston Hughes, Leyla McCalla, mandolin, New Orleans, New York, piccolo, Rhiannon Giddens, Rufus Cappadocia, Suites for Unaccompanied Violoncello, Vari-Colored Songs
“‘When I chose to play it in fourth grade, I didn’t know what a cello was. I thought it was a woodwind instrument. I walked up to this table in the classroom with all these different instruments on it and picked up the piccolo. But from across the room, the teacher called out: ‘Leyla McCalla! Leyla McCalla!’ I turned around and she had a cello in her hands. It was almost as big as me, really cumbersome and not at all what I was expecting.”
Leyla McCalla has been finding out what a cello is – and what it can do – ever since. Having initially restricted herself to the classical music world, her artistic brief now takes in the folk songs of her parents’ native Haiti as well as the old-time music of the American south. A touring member of the African-American string band Carolina Chocolate Drops, with whom she is almost permanently on the road, McCalla has found time and space to record an album of her own – the exquisite Vari-Colored Songs.
Today is something of a rest day, a stopover in Greensboro, North Carolina, en route to her adopted home in New Orleans. Not that it is much of a rest day, though. She is surrounded by musical instruments in the living room of Rhiannon Giddens, her Carolina Chocolate Drops bandmate. A break in rehearsals – while Giddens takes her seven-month-old son for a stroll around the neighborhood – allows McCalla to explain why she diverted from the cellist’s usual passage towards conservatoire and orchestra.
“My family moved to Ghana for two years when I was in high school and I quit playing,” she says. “There was no one to study with there and it put my conservatory hopes on hold. After we moved back to the States, I met a cellist called Rufus Cappadocia. His playing blew my mind – really rhythmic and exciting. It made me want to explore this instrument, to figure out what it can do besides all the things I love about it.”
McCalla not only reassessed how she played the cello – experimenting with finger-picking, strumming it like a mandolin – but also stepped outside the classical canon to embrace old-time tunes and Haitian folk songs, traditions previously untouched by the cello. “I get more out of music creating things that people have never heard before,” she says. “And that continues to propel me.”
Three summers ago, McCalla took the decision to up sticks from New York and settle in New Orleans. “I thought that moving there would bring out some creative things that I couldn’t explore in New York, where so much of my life was spent trying to figure out how to pay the rent. I moved on a wing and a prayer, but suddenly I was totally in charge of my own life.”
She soon became a fixture on the streets of New Orleans, strapping her faithful cello on her back and riding her drop-handlebar bike to a regular spot in the French Quarter, outside the police station. There she would treat passersby to Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Violoncello (BWV 1007-12).”The police, and everyone else, seemed to like me because the music was classy for New Orleans. Usually, it’s bands playing Dixieland jazz or a guy stomping his foot and playing plugged-in bluesy guitar. But they were like: ‘Oooh, classical music. Wow!’ I’d sit there for five hours a day, sometimes more. I met people that way. I started playing with local bands, sitting in with a few people, starting to play more jazz, starting to write more songs.”
As well as freeing her up creatively, McCalla’s relocation put her closer – geographically and culturally – to her Haitian heritage. “I didn’t realize there was such a connection between Haiti and New Orleans,” she says, citing their shared Spanish colonial past (originally French, it was part of the Spanish empire during the late eighteenth century). “But if you go to cemeteries in New Orleans, you see my family name on a lot of the tombs. Haiti is such a part of Louisianan history.”
Using songs to dust off this hidden history, McCalla’s art was chiming with that of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who had tracked her down to that pitch outside the police station. “I appreciated the clarity of what they were doing – telling the untold story of the black string band tradition and living that music, sharing its history with people.”
These graceful, defiant Haitian folk songs, sung in Creole in McCalla’s bell-clear voice, elegantly illuminate Vari-Colored Songs. The record’s title comes from its opening track, a poem by the African-American literary titan Langston Hughes, set to music and retitled Heart of Gold. It’s one of several Hughes poems to take song form on the album. “Music was such a big part of what inspired him to write in the first place,” explains McCalla. “His poems just feel so musical. I began recording little snippets that became songs. It could have become a huge project. I could have been doing this for the rest of my life!”
Even though McCalla’s curiosity has sent her down paths previously untrod by the feet of cellists, the events in that New Jersey classroom a couple of decades ago have long defined her. “I got stuck playing cello,” she sighs. “My teacher said: ‘You have long legs. You’ll be good at the cello.’ Not that that has anything to do with it but, proportionately, it does fit my body.” She laughs, presumably at the accidental wisdom she showed as a nine-year-old. “It’s definitely been the right instrument for me.”