Leyla McCalla, a singing, songwriting cellist and former member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, once aspired to being a classical musician laboring in the rarified world of chamber music. She earned a degree in cello performance from New York University in 2007. When she moved to New Orleans in 2010, J.S. Bach and his cello suites were her music foundation. Taking up the busking life, she performed Bach and the music of his Italian Baroque contemporary, Antonio Vivaldi, at Royal and Conti Streets.
But a pre–New Orleans encounter with the creatively borderless cellist Rufus Cappadocia had already diverted McCalla to an exploratory path. Her move to eclectic, rootsy New Orleans provided more new ideas. And then she grew tremendously during a two-and-a-halfyear membership in the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Grammy-winning black string band–inspired group featuring Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons.
In 2013, McCalla released her ecstatically received solo album debut, VariColored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes. It features musical settings of Hughes’ poems, original compositions and Haitian folk music. VariColored Songs made international impact. The New York–born daughter of Haitian immigrants found especially responsive audiences in France.
A Day for The Hunter, A Day for The Prey, McCalla’s second solo album, appeared in late May. Like its predecessor, it’s inspired by socially, politically shaped writing, specifically Gage Averill’s 1997 book about music, power and politics in Haiti.
The album includes original songs, Louisiana Creole and Cajun music, Haitian songs and American folk music.
McCalla recorded most of A Day for The Hunter, A Day for The Prey at Dockside Studio in Maurice. Her band, featuring the singer’s husband, guitarist Daniel Tremblay, and violist Free Feral, was joined by guests Rhiannon Giddens, Louis Michot of Lost Bayou Ramblers and New Orleans musicians Sarah Quintana, Aurora Nealand and Jason Jurzak.
Following spring appearances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Festival International de Louisiane in Lafayette, McCalla, Tremblay and Feral will tour the U.S., France, Switzerland and the United Kingdom through 2016. 24 of the dates are in the French-speaking nations of France and Switzerland.
France embraced you from the time you released your first album.
It was wonderful. I did so many interviews. And it’s been a big place for me to go back to. The audience is super supportive.
I get spoiled over there. I think the language is a big part of it. And there’s such history shared by Haiti and Louisiana and France. A lot of the music I’m working on ties all those things together.
Were you aware of your Haitian heritage from an early age?
Both of my parents worked in human rights. They were socially and politically active. I always knew that Haiti was a troubled place with many inequalities. My parents were forthright with me about that.
When I was 10 years old, I spent the summer in Haiti with my maternal grandmother. At 10, I was interested in a career in journalism—or so I thought. My grandmother took me on walks to interview kids in the streets. I wish I still had that notebook.
There must be some incredible stories in there.
Haiti has a big influence on me. I knew I was from there and I felt at home there. In many ways, I wanted to stay there.
What about Haiti resonated with you?
I loved the food. I liked speaking Creole. I loved the weather and being by the beach and living with the land. It’s the hippie ideal. And I felt free in Haiti. I really felt like I belonged there, whereas I struggled to find that when I was growing up in New Jersey.
When did you start learning and performing Haitian music?
Probably 2011, 2012. New Orleans pushed me further into my Haitian heritage.
When you visited New Orleans, before you moved here, did you sense connections between Haiti and New Orleans?
Absolutely. I was in New Orleans going, ‘Ah, red beans and rice.’ In Haiti we call it sos pwa. And the subtropical environment feels like Haiti. The way people are so laid back reminds me of Haiti. I read a book called The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square [by Ned Sublette]. It blew my mind how intertwined the history of Haiti and Louisiana is.
In your band, you play cello alongside Free Feral’s viola. So there are two lowpitched classical string instruments in your group. These bowed instruments plus the strummed and plucked guitar and banjo produce a distinctive string blend.
Cello and viola match the music we’re playing—even the interpretations of traditional music. Eventually, I’ll add a bass instrument and another soloist, because Daniel and I play mostly rhythm. It’s fun finding different ways for these arrangements to happen.
As far as the creative channels you took after you became disenchanted with classical music, did you have a light bulb over your head moment?
I met Rufus Cappadocia. He plays a self-designed, five-string electric cello. I saw him performing with a Haitian roots-music band when I was 18 years old. That moment changed my life.
I’d always wanted to follow the thing that I loved, chamber music. But then I was feeling like, ‘Okay, I’m in New York City. All of these amazing musicians experimenting with different things. I want to improvise, too. I don’t want to only play classical music.’
I had certain goals, but I didn’t know how they were going happen for me. I was also feeling, especially at NYU, out of line with the culture of classical music. Right notes. Wrong notes. Strict interpretation. I was bored with it. And it felt so colonial.
That frustrated me.
Being a minority was a big part of my experience in the classical world. I felt separated from that world. Then meeting Rufus Cappadocia and seeing him bring out all of these things that I wasn’t learning at school, I felt like, ‘Okay, I believe in those things, too. They have a place in the world as well.’
Did Rufus become a mentor?
He still is a mentor to me. He saw that I understand the mental and spiritual aspects of music, rather than just the physical and technical.
The demands of playing technically demanding classical music can be all-consuming. And classical musicians are supposed to be entirely faithful to the composer’s score. Did you want to be free from that?
I had to be free—because the thing that I love about playing music is playing it with other people. But I’d look around at school and say to myself, ‘I don’t think I really want to be around these people. With all due respect, these are not my people.’
What were you doing during your postNYU years in New York, from 2007 to 2010?
I was bartending and waitressing. I played at weddings. I taught cello. Sometimes I played at the Baptist church in Brooklyn.
I was wearing so many hats and getting so burnt out.
A big hustle. You had no time for contemplation?
It was a weird hustle that didn’t fulfill me. It felt more like the rat race.
When did New Orleans enter the picture?
I visited New Orleans in 2007 and was like, ‘Huh, this is a weird touristy place.’ I came again in 2009 and stayed for a month.
I was given a bicycle and a place to stay and a gig playing in the street with Tanya [Huang] and Dorise [Blackmon]. They’re part of that whole busking culture in New Orleans.
I went to Jazz Fest, heard some incredible music and ate incredible food. Music was happening everywhere I went. Every night. People dancing. You don’t get that in New York. Even now, I go places and I’m like, ‘People don’t dance here.’ Everyone is afraid to move their body. Whereas in Louisiana it’s a given. Everyone dances. That’s part of life. And I fell in love with the city. Things were so fluid with music and creativity. I felt at home here.
Why did you finally move to New Orleans?
It was a big deal for me to leave to New York. All of my family is there. I have lots of friends there. But I knew that New York wasn’t going to be the place where I can write music. I need silence and space. I didn’t have that in New York. It was like, gig here, gig there, do this, do that, do all of it—just to make enough to pay the rent.
And then I finally made the move in August 2010. It was the best decision. I was ready for a change. And I knew that I could make some money playing in the street. I played on Royal and Conti in front of the police station. That was so fun. I connected to my cello playing in a way that I hadn’t done in years.
Later, Tim Duffy, a manager of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, found you on Royal Street. He recruited you for the band. How formative were your years with the Chocolate Drops?
Joining the Carolina Chocolate Drops forced me to get myself in gear and work on my solo album in a serious way. Before I even joined the band, I’d started playing tenor banjo. All of a sudden we had these conversations in the band about the significance of the banjo in American musical history and its origins in West Africa. All these things started colliding.
The pieces came together. You found your way.
I don’t know how I ended up playing on Royal Street when the manager of the Carolina Chocolate Drops approached me.
But I knew music was going to bring me somewhere. I wanted to be somewhere.
At the end of the day, it’s about connecting with people. That feeds this whole thing. That makes me believe in it. And I feel like I’m doing something important. That’s all I really care about. I’m following my ears, my instincts. That’s what I’ve been doing since I started playing cello.
Now I find myself thinking a lot about what to say next. There is so much to say. I think about my own struggles as a new mom. We’re a small family juggling everything in our lives. A lot of the songs that I’m writing are coming out of that place.
Sometimes I think, ‘Ah, maybe this is too real.’ But it has to get personal for people to really get you. So I’m giving myself permission to write these personal songs. It’s so much about me, but it’s also about all of us.