Interview with Leyla McCalla

Interview with Leyla McCalla

When you first hear Leyla McCalla’s voice emerge on her new record it feels like it has come a very, very long distance to get there, miles and miles and decades and decades away. And you’d be right. Leyla McCalla was born in New York to Haitian immigrants and, after training in classical music at Smith College and New York University, she moved to New Orleans to more deeply embrace her roots as a Haitian, as an immigrant, as an American, and as an inheritor of African-American culture.

The result is an album that is steeped in 300 years of history and emotion. You hear the determination and resolve of rebels in Saint-Domingue and the German Coast in Louisiana. You hear the pain and loss felt by women who had their children ripped from their arms, never to be seen again. You hear the hopes and fears of migrants standing on a dock trying desperately to make a momentous and irreversible decision. You hear almost the whole sweep of post-colonial history in the Americas, in all it’s monstrosity and grace.

On top of all that, her songs are just stunningly arranged. She has combined classical and jazz influences with Haitian and Creole folk traditions in a way that feels both freshly original and prehistorically natural. I had the incredible luck to ask McCalla a few questions about her art before her June 14 show at the Des Moines Social Club. I’m pleased and proud to present her answers below.

CE: The long standing misconception that folk and Americana music is primarily a white genre dominated by legends such as Woody Guthrie and modern acts like Mumford & Sons has seemingly begun to crumble in recent years. What do you think your success with Carolina Chocolate Drops and the success of artists like Gary Clark Jr. or Fantastic Negrito says about the future of the genre?

LM: I think that as more and more people become educated about the origins of folk music, the more the genre will have a black audience and the more black performers will be inspired to play folk music. That said, nothing happens overnight.

CE: On your first album you combined musical interpretations of Langston Hughes poems with traditional Haitian folk songs, but with this latest effort it seems you’ve really come into your own as a songwriter. What have you learned about yourself from this experience?

LM: I’ve learned that I need a lot of space and silence to be able to write music. I’ve also learned to be patient with myself when I’m writing, so that I can say what I really mean in a song.  

CE: In an interview with NPR you talked about, “A Day For the Hunter, A Day for the Prey”,  the phrase that inspired your new album and title track. In that interview, you said “On one level, I heard it as one day for the oppressor and one day for the oppressed, a phrase that only survival during the colonial times of slavery could have produced. On another level, it made me think of the roles that we all play throughout our lifetimes, how we are all trying to navigate our way through this world where sometimes it feels as though we are the hunter, and sometimes we are the prey.” This struck me as a pretty powerful and succinct summation of the ways in which oppression can be, and historically has been, multi-layered and intersectional, particularly with regards to the experience of women of color. How does this legacy inform your work?

LM: All oppressive legacies inform my work. I’m very interested in history and in understanding why the world is the way that it is. I find in my research that, oftentimes, our heads are filled with half truths and not the real story of what happened. I try to dismantle the normalcy of that through my work, particularly with regard to Haitian history because I feel that it serves as a parable for understanding the colonial system that our society was built upon.

CE: Much of  African-American history is dominated by a sense of displacement, from the middle passage that brought Africans to the new world to the forced migration that brought slaves from Virginia and Maryland to the southern frontier to the great migration in the 20th century that saw millions of people fleeing North and West in an effort to escape Jim Crow. What impact do you think this history has had on the musical traditions that you explore on this latest album, and how is your experience as a daughter of Haitian immigrants similar to and/or different from this more general experience?

LM: The movement of African people into the Caribbean and the United States is why a lot of this music exists and sounds the way that it does. I am very thankful to have grown up in the times that I have with a relative sense of safety and security, to have been able to travel in Haiti and Europe and Africa, to have an education, to have been able to attend college and have a sense of possibility and options for my life. In some ways that experience is a normal middle class American childhood. The thing that makes my story a bit atypical was being torn between an American identity and a Haitian identity and the subtleties that make you feel out of place in our society if you don’t fit neatly into one box. Despite feeling out of place most of my life, I realize that I’ve had a very privileged life, very different than the typical American experience.

CE: You’ve talked about how moving to New Orleans in 2010 allowed you to more deeply reconnect with your Haitian roots and brought about a greater awareness of the ways in which Haitian history and culture is intertwined with the history and culture of Louisiana. Can you expand upon these new insights and talk a little about what impact they had on your approach to music, both as a songwriter and an interpreter of traditional songs?

LM: As a songwriter, I gained a lot of inspiration from being in New Orleans, being constantly surrounded by traditional music of all kinds but especially traditional jazz, cajun and creole music. When I looked into the origins of these traditions, Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and mass waves of immigration after the Haitian revolution to Louisiana was a big part of creating the culture and music that now thrives in Louisiana. I always wondered why this wasn’t common knowledge and it’s inspired me to find these gorgeous traditional songs and share them with the world, to try to understand them in their social and historical context and to uncover the truth about Haitian and Louisiana culture, not the sensationalized versions you learn about in the movies.

CE: In recent years we’ve seen a number of prominent musicians like Benjamin Booker or Trombone Shorty emerge out of New Orleans having found a way to breath fresh new life into traditional styles like blues or jazz in much the same way that you do with folk music. What do you think makes New Orleans such a good incubator for this type of musical innovation?

LM: Music lives and breathes on the streets, in the clubs and in the homes of practically every New Orleanian. When the city takes you in, it’s a place where you can make your life sustainable with art and it’s a place that nurtures raw talent. For me, it’s a place of intense creativity grounded in a history of creating art with whatever in front of you and that’s part of the ingenuity of New Orleans music. dsm

June 14
7 PM
Kum & Go Theater
All Ages
$15

Leyla McCalla
Abbie & the Sawyers

More information available at the Des Moines Social Club website.

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