New in 2014, the IMA and Cultural Cannibals are introducing ‘Last Call’ at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. This special after-hours program will take place on the last Saturday of featured exhibitions, inviting visitors to celebrate until midnight. On Saturday, January 11th we’ll be celebrating the final showing of ‘Matisse: Life in Color’ with a free performance from Leyla McCalla.
Multi-instrumentalist Leyla McCalla is best known for her work with critically acclaimed string band revivalists Carolina Chocolate Drops. But McCalla is gearing up for her debut solo release, both a celebration of poet Langston Hughes and an exploration of her Haitian heritage. Cultural Cannibals’ Kyle Long recently interviewed McCalla.
Cultural Cannibals: I want to ask you about your upcoming debut solo release. The album started out as an homage to Langston Hughes, but grew to encompass a musical exploration of your Haitian heritage. How did these two concepts merge?
Leyla McCalla: I started composing music to Langston Hughes’ poetry about five or six years ago. I moved to New Orleans about three years ago. Around that time I started to really develop the concept of making an album out of this music inspired by Langston Hughes.
As I settled in here in New Orleans I started reading about the history of the city and I learned how much of an influence Haiti has had on Louisiana’s history. It really turned me back to my Haitian roots and inspired me to learn more about music from Haiti. So as I started investigating that, I remembered Langston Hughes going to Haiti and he talks about that experience in his bookI Wonder As I Wander. At that point the album concept became more about me coming into myself creatively. This tribute to Langston Hughes is delivered from a very personal perspective.
Cultural Cannibals: You were born in Queens, N.Y. Both your parents immigrated to the U.S. from Haiti. I’m curious what sort of music was playing in your home as you grew up?
McCalla: When I was growing up I heard a little bit of Haitian music, but really not too much. I heard some kompa which is a Haitian dance music, but my parents listened more to Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder and James Taylor. I grew up with a lot of American folk music and The Beatles. I wasn’t really exposed to Haitian roots music other than being taken to a few live performances as a kid. My parents were never like she must be exposed to Haitian music.
Cultural Cannibals: Your Haitian influenced music seems to be drawing a lot on the twoubadou tradition — a form of acoustic folk music. This sound connects with your work in the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I’m curious what draws you to that traditional string band sound?
McCalla: Aesthetically I really like the string band sound. It’s so raw, there’s great melody and intertwining rhythms. A lot of people don’t realize that Haiti has its own tradition of banjo music and that’s something I found to be similar to the work I was doing with the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Cultural Cannibals: Have you had a chance to study music in Haiti?
McCalla: I really want to do that. I’ve been to Haiti several times in the past few years, mostly to visit my mom. She moved back to Haiti after the earthquake to work in human rights and development. When I go it’s more like a family thing. But it’s great to connect with Haiti just by being there and understanding the culture more. But I’d like to set aside a significant amount of time to be able to go and really work on music and work on my Krey˜l. But that hasn’t happened yet because I tour a lot.
Cultural Cannibals: Your music is full of rich sounds and references. I’d love to know what’s on your iPod on a typical day?
McCalla: I go in and out of phases of listening to Lauryn Hill. I’ve been listening to this awesome recording from the ’70s of a Haitian kompa band called Les Gypsies de Petion-Ville. It’s four electric guitars with congas and bass, a really fun, big sound with lots of intertwining parts. I’ve been listening to an album by the fiddle player Canray Fontenot called Louisiana Hot Sauce Creole Style.It’s really amazing, I’ve been trying to learn to play the fiddle parts on my cello.
Cultural Cannibals: You’re a classically trained musician?
McCalla: I have a classical background, but I think that’s mostly because I chose the cello as my instrument. It’s the basis of my technique, but I don’t think any of the music I play sounds like classical music.
Cultural Cannibals: What plans does the near future hold for you?
McCalla: I’m planning on playing a lot more solo shows to promote the album in 2014. I’m pretty busy getting ready for the release. We’re putting it out on Langston Hughes’ birthday on Feb. 1 and I couldn’t be more excited about that.