Former Carolina Chocolate Drops cellist Leyla McCalla delves into a difficult moment for America
By Bliss Bowen
“A day for the hunter, a day for the prey”: That philosophical Haitian proverb provided a title for ethnomusicologist Gage Averill’s 1997 book (subtitled “Popular Music and Power in Haiti”), which Leyla McCalla, formerly of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, read and subsequently adopted as the title for her new album.
It’s timely in that it finds the classically trained cellist exploring questions of identity that are very personal — yet also very much of this cultural and political moment in America.
“It feels like a time where we’re really being called upon to live up to our own ideals, and also really establishing what those are again,” McCalla observes over the phone from Boston, a few hours before playing a show at the Rockwell theatre. “The ideals were established before, but we know now that those were not really for everybody. It’s not for every skin color and every religion the way we like to believe. We’re seeing how our laws don’t really protect us from racial profiling or racism or classism. …
“It’s hard to feel optimistic, but I think that we have to be, because hope is really all that we have.”
She is speaking the morning after Hurricane Matthew killed at least 1,000 people in Haiti, the country where her parents were born. It is, she says, “a very vulnerable time,” when opportunists can capitalize on tragedy as they have in her adopted hometown of New Orleans, where she’s lived since 2010. Having witnessed how the country’s been “crippled by years and years of political upheaval and occupation,” she’s inspired by its people and her familial heritage to “really tell the story of Haiti and why it is the way it is.”
McCalla’s music glows with a determination to uphold what’s good in life while honestly assessing its darkness; it shines through songs like her pensive “Let It Fall” and Haitian protest singer Manno Charlemagne’s “Manman,” sung in sweet harmony with former bandmate Rhiannon Giddens.
Throughout the 12 tracks, she and her trio weave the gentle sway of Louisiana Creole fiddle tunes with Haitian folk songs and early 20th-century-style jazz as she plays cello, tenor banjo and guitar. It’s a fine, quiet set of music informed by motherhood and her navigation of mixed cultures — both as a daughter of Haitian immigrants who grew up speaking English as well as Haitian Creole, and as the wife of a native Canadian who speaks English and Quebeçois French. They’re still getting familiar with Louisiana Creole.
“It’s funny, all the French languages and all the dialect and languages related to it,” she says with a laugh. “We learn more and more, being around each other.”
McCalla’s parents were engaged in human rights work throughout her childhood, and her mother’s currently working for a commission that’s rebuilding McCalla’s Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood. That imbued McCalla with a keen sensitivity to social injustice and the state of the world.
Now she worries about the world she’s passing on to her 2-year-old daughter.
“We are moving forward, it’s just slow and it’s painful,” she says. “Change is not easy.”
Born in New York and raised mostly in the quaint township of Maplewood, New Jersey, McCalla lived in Ghana, West Africa, for a year and a half as a teen while her mother worked with Sierra Leone refugees, an experience she credits with developing her sense of pan-Africanism. She also visited Haiti. From an adult perspective, all those experiences sound fascinating. To a kid, they presented puzzling challenges. Who am I? Where do I fit in? How do all these different pieces of family heritage knit together, and how do they intersect with today’s world?
McCalla’s music gives dignified voice to those questions. Her father helped translate material for her solo debut, 2014’s “Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes,” which interspersed McCalla’s melodic settings of Hughes’ poetry with American and Haitian folk and jazz tunes. She toured behind that until she was eight months pregnant. Now she’s on the road with her daughter in tow, promoting “A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey” with husband Daniel Tremblay, who plays guitar, five-string banjo and ti fer (iron triangle), and violist Free Feral. They play McCabe’s Friday night. (CCD bandmate Dom Flemons is also on the bill.)
“It’s sort of a miracle that we can be on the road and do what we do with her,” McCalla says of balancing music and motherhood. She’s considered making an album of Haitian children’s songs, but the newer songs she’s writing — more on guitar than cello — are “charged by what’s happening in our world, [which] I’m thinking about in very adult terms.”
“I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll play my cello, everything will fall into place.’ Being a mom, things do not fall into place. I have to make a plan, she needs to be safe, she needs to have good people around her, she needs to be learning. It’s pushing me in a deeper direction, I think, of examining our society and humanity and the way we are with each other. I don’t think I’d be quite so focused on that were it not for me doing my best to nurture and protect and help this life grow.”
Leyla McCalla performs at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 14, at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. $20. Call (310) 828-4497 or visit leylamccalla.com