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Leyla McCalla

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“Her voice is disarmingly natural...her magnificently transparent music holds tidings of family, memory, solitude and the inexorability of time: weighty thoughts handled with the lightest touch imaginable.” —The New York Times 

Leyla McCalla finds inspiration from her past and present, whether it is her Haitian heritage or her adopted home of New Orleans, she — a bilingual multi-instrumentalist, and alumna of Grammy award-winning African-American string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops — has risen to produce a distinctive sound that reflects the union of her roots and experience. 

Deeply influenced by Creole music, as well as by American jazz and folk, McCalla’s music is at once earthy, elegant, soulful and witty — it vibrates with three centuries of history, yet also feels strikingly fresh, distinctive and contemporary. In her most recent release and third solo album, The Capitalist Blues (2019), McCalla processed the current political environment in her own way, by sonically blending New Orleans music and Haitian jazz, with lyrics sung in English, French and Haitian Creole. The album “imaginatively maps her vision of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora while gently taking Anglocentricism (and capitalism) down a notch,” said NPR. “She's partly in the moment and partly looking beyond it, and seeing truths that we've missed.”

McCalla’s widely-acclaimed collaborative project, Songs of Our Native Daughters (Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell), released via Smithsonian Folkways in 2019. The album pulled influence from past sources to create a reinvented slave narrative, confronting sanitized views about America’s history of slavery, racism, and misogyny from a powerful, modern black female perspective.

Her new project, Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever, a multi-disciplinary performance commissioned by Duke Performances that delves into the legacy of Radio Haiti, Haiti’s first privately owned Creole-speaking radio station, through its archive housed at the Rubenstein Library at Duke University. Leyla announced her signing with ANTI- Records in late 2021 and released the new album ‘Breaking the Thermometer‘ in May 2022.

Leyla’s music reflects her eclectic and diverse life experiences, projecting a respect for eloquent simplicity that is rarely achieved.

 Leyla McCalla 2022

www.leylamccalla.com

Leyla McCalla finds inspiration from her past and present, whether it is her Haitian heritage or her adopted home of New Orleans, she — a bilingual multi-instrumentalist, cellist and singer — has risen to produce a distinctive sound that reflects the union of her roots and experience.

Born in New York City to Haitian human rights activist immigrant parents, Leyla was immersed in a meld of cultures and progressive ideas from an early age. As a teenager, she relocated to Accra, Ghana for two years before returning to the States to study cello performance and chamber music at NYU. Armed with Bach’s Cello Suites, Leyla left New York to play cello on the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans. Singing in English, Haitian Creole, and French while playing cello, tenor banjo and guitar, her move allowed her to connect more viscerally to Creole resilience and musical expression. She rose to fame during her two years as cellist of the Grammy award-winning African-American string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, alongside bandmates Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons, before leaving the group in 2013 left to pursue her solo career.

Deeply influenced by Creole music, as well as by American jazz and folk, Leyla’s music is at once earthy, elegant, soulful and witty — it vibrates with three centuries of history, yet also feels strikingly fresh, distinctive and contemporary. “Her voice is disarmingly natural, and her settings are elegantly succinct...her magnificently transparent music holds tidings of family, memory, solitude and the inexorability of time: weighty thoughts handled with the lightest touch imaginable,” wrote The New York Times. Leyla’s debut album, Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes, was named 2013’s Album of the Year by the London Sunday Times and Songlines for its haunting mixture of music and message. 

Her second album, A Day For The Hunter, A Day For The Prey (2016), continued to explore themes of social justice, and included guests Rhiannon Giddens, Marc Ribot, Louis Michot of Lost Bayou Ramblers. Through deeply felt originals and interpretations of traditional songs, the album explores the nuances and complexities of the immigrant-American experience.  

2019 saw the release of Leyla’s third solo album, The Capitalist Blues. With this record, Leyla processed the current political environment in her own way, by sonically blending New Orleans music and Haitian jazz, with lyrics sung in English, French and Haitian Creole. The album “imaginatively maps her vision of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora while gently taking Anglocentricism (and capitalism) down a notch,” said NPR. “She's partly in the moment and partly looking beyond it, and seeing truths that we've missed.” 

Following her solo release came widely-acclaimed collaborative project, Songs of Our Native Daughters (Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell), via Smithsonian Folkways. The album pulled influence from slave narratives and the history of the banjo in order to confront sanitized views about America’s history of slavery, racism, and misogyny from a powerful, modern black female perspective.  

Leyla’s current project, Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever, commissioned by Duke Performances, delves into the legacy of Radio Haiti, Haiti’s first privately owned Creole-speaking radio station, through its archive housed at the Rubenstein Library at Duke University. The multi-disciplinary performance incorporates dance, projections and sound design set to Leyla’s original compositions and arrangements of traditional Haitian songs. Breaking the Thermometer premiered in March 2020 at Duke University, and Leyla announced her signing with ANTI- Records in late 2021 and released the new album ‘Breaking the Thermometer‘ in May 2022.

Leyla’s music reflects her eclectic and diverse life experiences, projecting a respect for eloquent simplicity that is rarely achieved. Digging into her roots to unearth history and explore musical tradition, Leyla has an entirely unique voice and perspective that is urgently relevant to our times.

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