The ever-evolving boundaries between classic genres have blurred beautifully behind Leyla McCalla‘s take on folk music. She’s far from the average musician. Singing in French, Haitian Creole and English, the string-loving songstress has found her niche through the combined expression of her music and meaningful messages. With versatility on her side, she plays the cello, tenor banjo and guitar. Equipped with a voice so natural and pure that mother nature would be envious, she’s been deeply influenced by traditional Creole, Cajun and Haitian music, along with American jazz and folk.
McCalla’s Haitian immigrant parents birthed her in New York and later raised her in suburban New Jersey. Their upbringing was consistent with assigned readings that lead her to identify with the teachings of Langston Hughes at an early age. With Hughes playing such a pivotal role in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, her parents saw fit to encourage their young star to educate herself using poetry and literature from the activist. Little did she know, those powerful underlying messages would serve as a foundation for her lyrical talent later down the road.
And that’s where Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes comes in to play. Named 2013’s Album of the Year by the London Sunday Times and Songlines Magazine, Leyla McCalla’s debut album resonated in the minds of all who lent an ear. The record, which pairs some of Hughes’ poems with Leyla’s own music, also includes original compositions and Haitian folk songs that continue to ring in a digital standing ovation. Having mastered the power of storytelling, McCalla’s sound is now known to offer a brief audio journey through history.
McCalla’s second album, A Day For The Hunter, A Day For The Prey, continues the exploration on themes of social justice and pan-African consciousness that marked Vari-Colored Songs. Named after the Haitian proverb that also provided the title of Gage Averill’s 1997 book about popular music, power and politics in Haiti, it was the singer’s intention to share the inspiration which history provides her.
Offbeat called Vari-Colored Songs “ambitious, deep and gorgeous,” while the Boston Globe described the record as “at once varnished and sparse, like field recordings in high definition.” If nothing else, the songbird’s collection of language blending sounds encompasses three centuries that detail a history of oppression. A beautiful offering in itself, Vari-Colored‘s drawn inspiration from the legendary Hughes has in turn sparked a widespread desire to revisit the work of civil rights influencers. Though the music genre strays outside of the lines of what has become a “norm” for African-American inspiration, McCalla’s transparency of family, memory and time is a quality we should all consider.
Stream her debut album below. And if you’re in Miami, be sure to stop by the Saint Heron House this weekend to see an intimate performance from Leyla McCalla during our Soul Cleansing on January 28th. Tickets can be purchased here.