Leyla McCalla redefines the cello, with songs from Haiti and help from Langston Hughes

Folk artist’s music draws from Haitian heritage and Creole tradition, set to Harlem Renaissance verse


Cellist/singer Leyla McCalla’s new CD is ‘Vari-Colored Songs.’

Cellist/singer Leyla McCalla’s new CD is ‘Vari-Colored Songs.’

Musician Leyla McCalla won’t play it straight.

On the cellist’s stunning debut, she doesn’t draw from that instrument’s common genre or adopt its conventional tone. She doesn’t even stroke its strings with the usual tools.

Instead of offering classical baroque music, McCalla plays a rare brand of folk. Rather than stick to the instrument’s stern or somber tone, her approach can seem playful and spry. And instead of elegantly crossing the cello’s strings with a long, resonant bow, she picks and slaps them with her raw fingers, like a standup bass.

“Some of that approach comes from my guitar playing,” McCalla says. “From when I was 13, I was reading tablature for finger-pickings and replicating them on the strings.”

Then there was her mentor, cellist Rufus Cappadocia. “He would pluck the strings like a flamenco guitar or flap the bow off them,” McCalla says. “It was mind-blowing.”

So is McCalla’s debut, titled “Vari-Colored Songs.” It’s an acoustic-based work that fuses the cello with the musician’s other instruments: tenor banjo and woodsy guitar. The mix gives her folk songs a bassy tone and a piney texture.

Those aren’t the disc’s only draws. Subtitled “A Tribute to Langston Hughes,” the album matches verse from the famed Harlem Renaissance poet to McCalla’s original music. The singer/musician then mixes her Hughes “collaborations” with traditional Creole folk songs, drawn from her Haitian heritage. She sings all these pieces in a high, winsome voice, an effective contrast to her cello’s baritone hum.

McCalla will bring that rich mix of sounds to two shows this week — Tuesday at Brooklyn’s BRIC House and Thursday at Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side.

McCalla wrote the music for her album in New Orleans, where she has lived for the last three years. The 28-year-old grew up in New York with parents who had deep ties to Haitian culture. Her father directed a U.S.-based human rights organization for the people of that impoverished Caribbean island, while her mother was an immigration lawyer. Her grandfather edited a Haitian Socialist newspaper.

“I was always around liberal thought,” McCalla says. “I was encouraged to be a critical thinker.”

When she was 15, McCalla’s parents moved to Ghana to work with refugees streaming in from war-torn Sierra Leone. McCalla, who started playing cello in the fourth grade, had no access to classical music there, so she began to rethink her musical approach. Upon returning to the U.S. at 17, she attended Smith College and then transferred to NYU. At a party, she met respected cellist Cappadocia. It was a revelation.

“He made the cello seem a lot more fun,” she says. “He got into the feel of it and locked into something like a groove.”

New York’s high cost of living led McCalla to move to New Orleans, a place she had visited and loved for its French-speaking connection between local Creole and Haitian culture. “I learned a lot there about the Haitian revolution and it’s connection to Louisiana,” she says. “That led me to the Haitian folk music.”

Leyla McCalla matched her music with poetry by Langston Hughes.

Leyla McCalla matched her music with poetry by Langston Hughes.

McCalla made enough money playing classical cello music on the street to support herself. “It was mostly Bach and Vivaldi sonatas,” she says. “People thought it was classy and peaceful compared to the other music down there.”

Music impresario Tim Duffy saw one performance and was so smitten he struck up a friendship. He connected her to a well-known folk-string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and soon the cellist became a regular part of their touring group. To finance her own album, McCalla turned to Kickstarter, asking for $5,000 in seed money. She wound up getting more than $20,000.

“It’s a good thing,” she says. “I didn’t know how much recording an album costs.”

McCalla knew she wanted to use Hughes’ poetry right away. “At a young age, I fell in love with his word choices,” she says. “He inspired me to want to become an artist.”

Hughes’ verse, inspired by blues and jazz, reads like lyrics. McCalla earns the literary company with her dark-toned songs. Her unusual cello style also matches the poetry in terms of sheer invention.

“The cello isn’t tied to one role,” the musician says. “It’s so much more versatile than people know.”


Leyla McCalla

Tuesday, 8 p.m.

Brooklyn’s BRIC House

Thursday, 8 p.m.

Rockwood Music Hall

The Milk Carton Kids will perform at the Allen Room.

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