For some, heritage and ancestry is a minimal part of life – my great-grandparents are from Ireland, so mom makes corned beef and cabbage. For others, delving into who and where they come from is a large part of examining who they are as an individual. Leyla McCalla would most definitely be the latter, detailing her heritage and interpreting what she finds to see how it fits into the bigger picture. I was lucky enough to ask her a few questions; read on to learn more about her journey and what she’s found so far!
Your debut album was a tribute to Langston Hughes. What got you into Langston Hughes?
Langston Hughes was a writer that I became familiar with, first through my parents, and second through school. For my 16th birthday, my dad gave me a book of Langston Hughes’ poetry and that’s when I really got into his poetry and started to understand his work in the larger context of American history and racial politics.
You released Vari-Colored Songs in 2014. What makes the poetry of Langston Hughes relevant today?
The New York Times recently published an article featuring Langston Hughes’ poem “I, Too, America” questioning whether a poem could affect the course of the upcoming election. To me, that is great example of how Hughes’ work continues to be relevant. His poems ask us to question what our real values are, to be honest about that and if our values really benefit the good of the whole and even what we consider the whole to be. His work asks us questions that we’re still stumbling over as a society. He was an extremely insightful and visionary artist and I think we’ll be talking about his work for centuries to come.
What’s it like having your family on the road with you?
Having my family on the road with me is intense! I love it, I’m so grateful for it! But it comes with its challenges. It can be very stressful being on the road. Establishing routines for my daughter is especially challenging. The ups are so up, and the downs can be very down. That said, we have a good amount of support for it to be feasible and it’s made our entire touring party a little family. I feel way more joyful with my husband and daughter always by my side than with any other band I’ve ever been in! It’ll be interesting to see how and if that changes as my daughter gets older.
How many different languages do you sing in, and why?
I sing it Haitian Kreyol, Louisiana Creole and French. I’m passionate about singing in these languages that I feel connected to through my Haitian heritage as well as my adopted home of New Orleans. In the United States, we can be very ignorant about how our policies and colonial structures have crippled the so called third world. The stories that I’ve found in the songs from Haiti and Louisiana uncover some of this history and I find a lot of healing in opening people’s minds to the realities that they may not have considered. Singing in Kreyol especially feels like one of the ways that I can resist complacence to this ignorance and celebrate this beautiful and complex language that was born out of slavery and survival.
How does your music serve as a connection to your heritage? Has it reconnected you to any parts of your heritage that you weren’t strongly tied to before?
I started re-learning Kreyol and French as an adult, though I grew up with my family speaking a lot around me, I never really spoke either of those languages fluently. When I fell upon Troubadour music from Haiti, I was really moved by the rhythms and the sense of melody. My father helped me to translate some of the lyrics from Kreyol to English and I started to piece together the puzzle of how the music revealed Haitian history and culture. That made me thirsty for more and has definitely helped me to find a sense of place in Haitian culture, something that I always felt pride for but didn’t feel a very personal connection to until I started learning the songs.
How important is it to preserve and continue tradition?
I think that’s it’s important to understand tradition and then decide look towards the future. Lots of aspects of traditional music are classist, racist and sexist, so I don’t really believe in preserving tradition at all costs. But I do feel that there is so much we can learn about our modern society from traditional music and that if we’re willing to really look at ourselves, that we can gain some huge clues on what helps us and what hurts us.
Do you think your experience of the music industry is different as a woman of color (as opposed to a white man, etc.)?
There’s no doubt that my experience as a black woman in the music industry is vastly different from that of a white man.As I rise in the industry and understand it more, I see how few people of color are in positions of power. It must be easier to be a black artist than a black agent, manager or A&R person. It’s basically all older white men, even my own team, who I have tons of respect and admiration for. The unspokenness of all of that makes me uneasy but I guess that dynamic also fuels me creatively, channeling my frustrations with systems of inequality through my music.
Is there a story behind the tattoo on your right arm?
The tattoo on my right arm is a holy basil plant. Tulsi (holy basil) is a plant that has many medicinal qualities but in ayurvedic medicine is used for bolstering the immune system, soothing anxiety and connecting to spirituality. I use this tattoo as a reminder to take care of myself and stay true to my spirit.
When and why did you start playing the cello?
I started playing cello through the public school system in Maplewood, NJ. After mistaking the cello for a flute (long story), I got stuck playing cello and I consider it the best mistake of my life. I was terrible for years and then things clicked when I was about 12, and I could actually make a nice sound and I had some great teachers who really encouraged me and believed in me and it helped me to fall in love with playing music.
Leyla McCalla will be at the Doctorow on Saturday, September 8th! Get your tickets here before they sell out.