Leyla McCalla – She’s Got the Blues

This feature originally appeared in Songlines #146 (April 2019) p26. Download a pdf here

Embracing the myriad musical styles of her New Orleans home and her Haitian heritage, musician Leyla McCalla has created a powerful protest album. Alexandra Petropoulos speaks to her about the inspiration behind the release

The easiest place to start would be to lament the state of the world, blaming the festering climate of hate on a certain mean-spirited Cheeto who shall not be named. It would be too easy to highlight all of the reasons why we need a protest album like Capitalist Blues. So I won’t. Instead, what makes this album by New Orleans-based Leyla McCalla truly special is not that it’s the protest album for our generation, but that it sees the ex-Carolina Chocolate Drop finding and fully embodying her creative voice. We’re just lucky that she uses it to speak out against social injustices.

For those familiar with McCalla’s previous albums, Capitalist Blues may come as a bit of a surprise. It is the first time she’s recorded with a band, opening up from the simple string accompaniment of her cello, banjo or guitar. While the tracks are still connected by a similar thread – steeped in the music of her adopted home of New Orleans and her Haitian heritage – Capitalist Blues sees her expand her musical reach. From swinging blues to zydeco via calypso and piano boogie, McCalla proves just how versatile a musician she is.

But it all started with the cello. She started playing when she was just eight years old, studying classical music until she met the cellist Rufus Cappadocia while at university in New York City. “He was playing with a band called the Vodou Drums of Haiti, and it blew my mind. It was the first time I saw the cello in that context. I was like, why shouldn’t I do that?” Cappadocia’s use of various extended techniques and influences suddenly gave McCalla permission to explore music beyond the classical performance she was used to. “I started taking lessons from him. It was the first time that I would go to a lesson with a teacher and not have music in front of me.” She learned what so many classical musicians struggle with: how to play by ear. “I realised that there is a whole world out there of music that can be communicated without a piece of paper. That has definitely become a big part of my playing and musical approach.”

After graduating university in 2010, she upped sticks and moved to New Orleans. At first I just really felt enamoured with the cultural and musical life of the city. There’s music happening all the time.” Surrounded by the rich musical environment of the Big Easy, her world had been opened up. By 2012 she had joined up with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, with Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons, and together they explored old-time African-American string music. But it wasn’t until she read The World That Made New Orleans (2008) by Ned Sublette that McCalla found her true calling. “Reading that book, I realised how much Haiti came up in the conversation of the making of this city. It encouraged me to learn more about the Haitian revolution and the impact of that on that entire region of the Caribbean and the southern United States.”

Even though McCalla’s parents were born in Haiti, she didn’t really feel connected to the music of her heritage. “I’ve sort of come to this stuff as an adult because I didn’t get that from my parents when I was a kid. My parents were fans of music, and they played some Haitian roots music bands, so it’s not that there wasn’t music in my house; it’s that it wasn’t a focus of our family.” And now, living in the cultural melting pot that is New Orleans, she was finally discovering the music of Haiti.

“One day I started researching Haitian folk music, just to see what would come up, and that’s how I found an album by Frantz Casséus & Lolita Cuevas on Smithsonian Folkways.” Haitian Folk Songs – an album of guitar and vocal arrangements of voodoo and folk songs – captured McCalla’s imagination and set her on a journey into Haitian folk expression. Soon she discovered Haiti’s troubadour music and it was like she had been offered a sign. “It’s banjo-driven, and I had started playing the banjo thinking that I was going to play New Orleans traditional jazz. But then I found out that there was also a banjo tradition in Haiti. It felt like, oh well, that’s clearly what I’m supposed to be doing.”

As she dived further into the tradition, learning songs, she felt like she had stumbled into a musical treasure chest. “I really loved the melodies, and the intersection of the melodies within the rhythmic structures of the songs.” And though her Creole was limited and she couldn’t understand the full meaning of the songs, she had backup help. “I would send mp3s to my dad and he would translate them. I started to realise that there’s this incredibly rich social and political consciousness that exists in these songs.”

Perhaps this spoke to something that already ran deep in her blood. She grew up in a family concerned with social issues. Her parents worked in human rights advocacy, and her family even relocated to Accra, Ghana for a couple years when she was a year old, while her mother worked with Sierra Leonean refugees. This social awareness, combined with an exploration of her Haitian roots, is what informed her first two albums.

Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes (2014) and A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey (2016) saw her probe the human condition, through metaphor, something at which Haitian music is expert. “There’s a sort of Haitian imagination that plays with metaphor. I felt that that was something really special that doesn’t get explored enough.” Both self-produced albums featured her languid voice, minimally accompanied by her cello, banjo and guitar. There were a few guests and a couple of originals, but mostly she showed off her ability to breathe new life into folk songs and poetry.

However, for Capitalist Blues, she worked with a producer for the first time – Jimmy Horn of King James & the Special Men. “I knew that I wanted to not have the responsibility to create the sonic world of each song,” she says. Working with a producer allowed her to focus on her vocal performance and songwriting. In the end, the album became more of a collaborative project. She would bring Horn unfinished ideas and he would help her actualise them. “I trusted him completely.” This is why her third album sees a broader sound that seems infinitely more mature – and when her first two albums were so good (both Top of the World reviews, in #96 and #119), that’s saying a lot.

“There are a lot
of forces at conflict
right now. I hope this
this album is a
bit of respite”

From the first few notes, Capitalist Blues sets you directly into her adopted home. It opens with the juicy swinging blues of the title-track. It’s easy to imagine following this soulful march down the streets of the Big Easy. McCalla laments the state of the music industry, supported by an all-star NOLA [New Orleans and Louisiana] cast including members of the Palmetto Bug Stompers, Shannon Powell on the drums and Carl LeBlanc on tenor banjo. “They’re the cream of the crop, really amazing local musicians in New Orleans.” And fittingly, it was recorded at the French Quarter venue, Preservation Hall.

The album then moves through calypso, New Orleans piano boogie, zydeco and Haitian rara (carnival parade music), and features a handful of special guests. This includes the excellent Port-au-Prince band Lakou Mizik, who happened to be passing through town and contributed to the rhythmic rara of ‘Settle Down’. Another guest is credited amusingly as ‘Taxi Driver Man’ on ‘Lavi Vye Neg’ – “I had asked the percussionist that I work with, Fan Fan, to sing background vocals as well as play percussion. He said, OK, but I need to go get my driver, he’s a good singer.” So, she thought, why not?

Ultimately Capitalist Blues is a protest album. It is a creative reflection of the emotional and psychological effects of capitalist society. “It’s my entry into seeing the dysfunctionality of our socio-economic choices and feeling overwhelmed by that. And also, with Trump getting elected and the political environment as it is, there was just this feeling of stagnation, of feeling stuck and depressed. Of wanting to block out what’s happening and not face it.” She found it was her responsibility to face it head on. “I feel like I can’t not address it. Not only is it my responsibility as a musician, but now I have three babies to take care of. If I’m not addressing [these issues], everyone suffers, including my family. So that informed a lot of the inspiration for the songs as well.”

This is felt to great effect on ‘Heavy as Lead’. The swinging swamp rock was written in response to the devastating news that McCalla’s daughter was found to have very high levels of lead in her blood. “It wasn’t just us, it was literally all of my friends with kids in the city of New Orleans.” It’s a systemic issue – old houses still have lead paint that just gets covered over rather than safely removed and there are elevated levels in the city’s drinking water thanks to old lead pipes – but McCalla was disheartened to find how little help the government was. “I thought about all of the children in Flint, Michigan, drinking water with lead contaminants while the government officials in that same town drank bottled water in plastic bottles and the inequality that an environmental and infrastructural issue such as this exposes about our country and imagined how heartbreakingly helpless their parents must feel navigating this challenge.” Your heart breaks a little more every time you hear McCalla sing ‘Don’t tell me everything is gonna be alright.’

There’s also ‘Aleppo’, written in response to the bombing of the city. “I was on Facebook watching testimonies from people in Syria… and I just couldn’t understand. How is bombing this place and these people making anything better?” Above harsh, distorted guitar she sings ‘bombs are falling in the name of peace.’

The covers fit neatly within the overarching theme. The calypso ‘Money is King’ is a fairly self-explanatory comment on capitalism and the Creole ‘Lavi Vye Neg’ is a song about a poor old man by Gesner Henry. McCalla even wrote an original in Haitian Creole, ‘Mize pa Dous’, which is a phrase that can mean ‘Poverty is not Sweet.’ And ‘Settle Down’ is a defiant cry against Trump and anti-protest laws.

With so much tension in the air, we probably all have a touch of the capitalist blues and this album speaks to that. But this isn’t to say that there isn’t an uplifting side to the album. There are songs like ‘Me and My Baby’ which is an irresistible jive about the bliss of motherhood or the fun zydeco of ‘Oh My Love’, a testament to the reality of love.

In fact, joy can be felt in every inch of Capitalist Blues, and that’s what makes it so unique. McCalla has found her voice and uses it to create meaningful songs that just sound like fun. Sometimes the best thing you can do is remind yourself that joy and love are the only things that will help when faced with a world that feels like it’s falling apart. “There are a lot of forces at conflict right now. I hope that this album is a bit of respite from that for other people, and also a reminder of the joy it takes to lead a fulfilling life.”   

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