Leyla McCalla At Columbus

(11.20) Leyla McCalla is a cello player from New Orleans. Her debut album “Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes” was released earlier this year. McCalla will be performing at the Columbus Theatre this Thursday. Jim Almo, who also hails from New Orleans, spoke with her on the phone this week.

New Orleans is a city known for music. The blend of funk, jazz, and all things swampy is embedded in the history of a city that was birthed from a small plot of dry land beside an oxbow in the mighty Mississippi River. From the late 1600s through the mid-1800s, New Orleans and Louisiana changed hands between France and Spain and eventually the fledgling United States. But no country, no matter how powerful, ever truly ruled New Orleans. The geographic and demographic components of the city, as well as the rhythms of the Mississippi River and Caribbean Hurricanes, rendered the city an impossible place to tame.

Little has changed since then. New Orleans is a melting pot of people and cultures, all adding a little something to the city. New Orleans is, and always has been, a place where you can reinvent yourself. This is how Leyla McCalla found herself in the city where things move a little more slowly, where the soul can find comfort in the smile of a stranger and the embrace of friends, and life is about living joyfully.

McCalla is a classically trained cello player, originally from New York. After graduating from NYU she found herself steadily creating music to the poetry of Langston Hughes. Between teaching, playing music, bartending, waitressing, and trying to pay rent, she realized that New York was too distracting. New Orleans offered a place to slow down and focus.

That focus is evident on her debut album, Vari-Colored Songs. This album is a blend of McCalla’s creative work with Langston Hughes poems, Haitian folk songs, and her original material. While a lot of her music is buoyant, she is not afraid to tackle heavy subject matter. Her rendition of Hughes’ “Song for a Dark Girl” gives voice to a history of segregation and racial violence, while reminding us that we still have work to do in offering freedom and equality to all people.

Way Down South in Dixie

(Break the heart of me)

They hung my black young lover

To a cross roads tree.


“That poem is so powerful. I always wanted it to be a song, and felt the best way to present it was with simplicity. It is just my voice and guitar because we need to hear the words. In Hughes’ autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander, he talks about traveling in the South and not being able to stay in hotels and just avoiding trouble.”

McCalla feels that Hughes poetry is relevant today just as it was in the 1920s and 30s, but says that her experiences are not the same. “Touring with a band called the Carolina Chocolate Drops would not have been possible…maybe even 20 years ago.” (McCalla toured with the Grammy award winning Chocolate Drops for two years.)

Even after touring with the Carolina Chocolate Drops and finishing her first album, which was featured on NPR’s “Tell Me More”, McCalla says that this is an “interesting time…I feel like I am at the beginning of my career. It’s important to me to maintain integrity in my work. I’m still figuring out the vision for the next album.” She says she feels fortunate to be able to tour with her husband and baby, do what she loves, and continue to explore new music. Some of her favorites in her New Orleans home are Tuba Skinny, Luke Winslow King (who appears on her album), the G-String Orchestra, the Deslondes (who tour regularly with Hurray for the Riff Raff), and the Roamin Jasmine (bassist Taylor Smith is currently touring with McCalla).

And what about her shows on this tour? “I’m just excited about performing.”

Leyla McCalla performs at the Columbus Theatre this Thursday.

$12 day of, ($10 in advance), doors 7pm, show 8pm, Thursday, November 20, Columbus Theatre upstairs, 270 Broadway

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