Multi-instrumentalist Leyla McCalla is a woman who has, in few short years, taken just about every route you can as a professional musician.
The Haitian-American who grew up in New Jersey began studying cello as a child. That eventually led her to New York University, where she majored in music, which then led to teaching music in high school while pursuing a classical career, performances at Carnegie Hall and playing in bands that explored traditional music from around the globe while melding with American folk, blues and jazz.
McCalla left New York for New Orleans, trading in steady gigs for the free-form aspect of street performance in The Big Easy. That eventually led to her becoming a member of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, the North Carolina-based old-time string band made up of African-Americans playing a genre dominated by Caucasians.
McCalla will be in Durango on Wednesday night playing an intimate solo show at Studio &.
New Orleans was the right choice for McCalla to pursue her art the way she wants to.
“I was doing all these freelance gigs, and I felt unfulfilled by all the freelance work I was doing,” McCalla said last week during a tour stop with the Chocolate Drops. “I wanted to do more with who I am, something more creatively stimulating and satisfying.”
Part of that pursuit of the art is more than just playing on the stage, although that’s a major part of it. The Carolina Chocolate Drops put on a history lesson, dispelling the myth that mountain music is a white person’s game, which it is not. Like American blues or jazz, you can trace the genre back to African-Americans.
“It’s incredible to travel internationally and all over the country, perform in front of thousands of people and deepen my understanding of string-band music, and African-American string-band history and history in general,” McCalla said. “It’s rare for a young group of black people to play together and be able to play a style of music people don’t expect you to play. To be part of that history is a big part of my life.”
Recently, McCalla far exceeded her Kickstarter campaign goal to fund her debut solo release, a collection of songs in which she set the words of Langston Hughes to music she wrote. That project will be out in 2014.
Although “folk” best describes her solo work, for someone like McCalla, who has lived, eaten, breathed and studied music since she was a child, folk is much more than a catchall term. Forget hearing “folk” and imagining early Bob Dylan. Her brand is tied into culture as much as it is music, reflecting neighborhoods, beliefs and history through blues, jazz, gospel or even a traditional Haitian tune on a cello, guitar or banjo. Her sound is a reflection of how diverse her musical path has been, from her classical roots in New York to playing square-dance numbers on bluegrass festival stages.
“It’s been kind of a whirlwind, but I guess everything happens as it should,” McCalla said. “You just got to keep knocking on doors until one of them opens, and I’m still knocking.”
Liggett_b@fortlewis.edu. Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager.