Leyla McCalla On Cultural Heritage, Her Solo Album, And Creative Fulfillment
Leyla McCalla was born in New York, or was she? Listening to her sing on the farm-stage at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, you’d swear that she was coming straight from the Louisiana Bayou. Listening to her croon a song entitled “Latibonit” on a stage in Paris, surrounded by musicians as seasoned as herself, makes you think she’s a street performer on the streets of Port-au-Prince. But, she’s just Leyla. Leyla McCalla.
The daughter of Haitian parents, McCalla is on the brink of releasing her first solo album, a record made up of songs inspired by her love of Langston Hughes’ poetry. Her voice is lovely, ornate, bluesy, and most of all, enthralling.
You’ve said in a previous interview that your parents were very, very liberal. What was it like growing up of Haitian parentage?
My father was born in Port-au-Prince and my mother was born in Cap-Haitien. My grandfather, Ben Dupuy, was the editor of a progressive Haitian newspaper called Haiti Progres. As a young man, my father worked for his newspaper and later was the director of an organization called the National Coalition for Haitian Rights. My mother is an immigration lawyer who also helped found a Haitian women’s rights organization called Dwa Famn. I grew up going to demonstrations, learning about different Haitian rights issues, and attending the Ethical Culture Society as my Sunday school. My parents instilled a sense of pride about being Haitian as I was growing up, but it wasn’t until my adulthood that I really understood why that was important for them.
When you were little, what sort of music did you absorb from your surroundings?
My parents listened to all sorts of music. Some things that stick out in my mind are Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire, James Taylor, Paul Simon, the Beatles, Bob Marley and Boukman Esperyans.
How did you fall in love with the cello?
I started playing the cello when I was in fourth grade. It wasn’t until I was in 7th grade that I could actually make a half decent sound. Unlocking the mystery of how to make a beautiful sound on the cello was the beginning of me really identifying as a cellist and a musician.
Can you imagine yourself being attached to another instrument?
I’m very attached with my guitar, my banjo and my voice.
And while we’re discussing instruments, let’s talk about your instrument. How do you take care of your voice?
Learning how to take care of my voice is actually something that is relatively new to me. I’m getting better at it all the time. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink too much and I try not to talk too much when I know that I’m gong to have to sing. The last one is the hardest.
As someone who went to NYU and studied performance and chamber music…what are some of the biggest principles you learned in those areas?
Beyond knowing how to make a beautiful sound on the cello, I expanded my palette for all the different sounds that the cello can make. I worked hard on smoothing out my bow sound and understanding the role the fingers of my bow hand play in creating all the different textures and dynamics that really refine your playing. But I must admit, as much as I was focused on my classical music studies, it was outside of school that I expanded my view of the cello and the potential of my career as a musician. I knew hen I was NYU that the culture of classical music was not a sustainable lifestyle choice for me. I wasn’t passionate enough about that music to suffer for it.
So, when you were a teen, you went to live in Accra, Ghana. What was that like?
Living in Accra when I was 15 and 16 was both an opportunity and a challenge. It is such a fragile time in your life and I felt really far from everything that I knew. And at the same time, I learned so much about Ghanaian and West African culture and it reminded me a lot of being in Haiti. It was interesting to see people’s reaction to me; in Ghana they called me “abruni” which literally translated means “pink man from over the mountain” but really just means foreigner. But that experience is something that I’ve had in Haiti as well; local people can tell that you are not from there.
And when you went back to the USA, did you view the world differently?
The biggest culture shock came from moving back to the US. I moved back for my senior year of high school, putting me in school with kids that I hadn’t been in school with since 8th grade. I went to three different high schools in four years and I had a hard time relating to other kids. That said, my view of the world had changed. I was lucky to experience living and traveling a bit in West Africa and that experience has helped me to understand my own identity within Africa and Black identity.
When was the last time you went to Haiti?
The last time I was in Haiti was Christmas, 2012.
Do you listen to Haitian music?
I really enjoy the Haitian vintage recordings from the 60s and 70s. I’ve been most recently listening to a konpa band called Les Gyspies de Petionville that features about 4 electric guitars, drum sets, percussion, bass, and lots of call and response vocals. What I like about it is that the band is super tight but the music is so loose. I love that combination and I find it often when listening to Haitianmusic, across the genres. I’ve been most influenced by troubadour music. I love Althiery Dorival, Ti Coca et Wanga Neges, but also love the folk style of Manno Charlemagne and the guitar playing of Frantz Casseus.
What does beauty mean to you—like, how do you define it personally?
Beauty is something that moves you.
Have you ever been a victim of lookism?
To be honest, I had to google what lookism is. I do not see myself as a victim of lookism.
Prior to attending NYU, you attended Smith College, an all-girls college, for a while—a whole year actually. Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, both recognized as great thinkers and feminists in history went to Smith as well. How cool. Would you mind telling us your thoughts and comments on some things that have been said by these ex-Smith College students? “It is easier to live through someone else than to become complete yourself”—this was said by Betty Friedan, Class of 42. And this quote—-“The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn”—attributed to Steinem.
To be honest, I’m not sure that I agree that it’s easier to live through someone else. Anytime I’ve tried that, I feel tortured and conflicted and depressed. But I think that what Betty Friedan was trying to convey is how difficult it is for us to face ourselves, especially in our darkest moments. But that if we avoid that, then we miss all of the lessons and the strength that can be drawn from that. I think there’s plenty for us to all unlearn, but it just depends on what side of the coin you’re on. We all need to learn and unlearn, I’m not sure you can have one without the other.
And going back to Steinem, she once said, “We need to remember across generations that there is as much to learn as there is to teach.” What’s the biggest lesson that you had to learn completely on your own?
I taught cello for a few years before I was performing full time. Most of my students were between the ages of 5 and 9. Little guys! I learned so many things: how to be patient, how to really explain things, how to listen, and how to give. I miss teaching! It made me so excited for them and I think that my students really felt that from me and it gave them more confidence in their playing and in other areas of their lives. It’s hard to say what the biggest lesson that I’ve had to learn is but I know that I wouldn’t be the musician that I am today without having taught those kids.