Leyla McCalla’s third solo release The Capitalist Blues is remarkable in terms of ambition, scale, and realization. Whereas her first efforts focused on her solo work and small cello ensembles, The Capitalist Blues is a large-scale project enlisting dozens of musicians across a multiplicity of genres with producer Jimmy Horn (a.k.a. King James) at the helm, with McCalla just as often opting for the electric guitar as much as the cello. McCalla’s previous effort was inspired by the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. Here, McCalla’s lyrics take shape in a spellbinding journey addressing “The psychological and emotional effects of living in a capitalist society.” Born in New York City to Haitian parents who are human rights activists, Leyla McCalla has made New Orleans her home for nearly a decade and has juggled her musical career that has found her traveling the world with The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Our Native Daughters, and as a solo artist as well as raising three adorable young children. Those elements that confront an increasingly hostile political climate which directly impacts her family’s lives all permeate the sprawling story arc of The Capitalist Blues.
With a provocative title like The Capitalist Blues one might expect the in-your-face intensity of The Clash or perhaps the didactic shaming of Bob Dylan, but instead we find McCalla emerging more as a unique world music artist more akin to Cesaria Evora or Angelique Kidjo; her music resonates with profound lyricism. The songs flow from folk jazz to calypso, zydeco to Cajun, R&B with gospel overtones, Haitian Creole, ballads, to exuberant rock ’n’ roll. It’s a lot, but producer Jimmy Horn was hell-bent on pushing McCalla’s range to the limit, and it pays off handsomely here. The title track commences with a slow drag trad jazz feel that laments the hardships of being on the downside of the capitalist trickle-down blues, served with a judicious side of resistance.
Neville Marcano’s Trinidad calypso classic “Money Is King” kicks things into high gear as the insatiably irresistible groove punctuates the biting lyrics that contrast the status between rich and poor.
“Oh My Love” is a exuberant zydeco romp featuring Corey Ledet. It hits like Saturday night at Fred’s Lounge in Mamou, and is one of the many shining moments here.
The beautiful, bittersweet “Mize Pa Dous” sung in Haitian Creole utilizes a lap steel guitar and a Haiti’s national instrument, the tanbou. While the song title translates to “Poverty is not sweet” you wouldn’t necessarily guess that from the sultry, sensual sway of McCalla’s vocal delivery.
The aptly titled “Heavy As Lead” depicts every Louisiana parent’s worst fears when discovering her daughter tested positive for lead poisoning. As McCalla dealt with that nightmare, she soon discovered just how ubiquitous that problem was here. McCalla’s says the song came to her in one powerful take and it drained her completely. It’s perhaps her most poignant song to date, underscored by Joe Ashlar’s soulful organ and driven home by Topsy Chapman and her daughters’ lovely harmony vocals.
Throughout The Capitalist Blues Leyla McCalla’s expressionism is in full bloom as she elicits more empathy than anger, and more hope than frustration; all the while maintaining her sense of urgency. Over the course of this year, the events of our time find me returning to this recording over and over again for solace, for inspiration, for hope and meaning in a time that desperately needs all the positive vibes we can get.