Leyla McCalla Finds Her Haitian History

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Leyla McCalla Finds Her Haitian History

Leyla McCalla’s go-to filler phrase seems to be “you know.” She often ends sentences this way, her voice turning up like a little sketchbook-scribbled wave of intonation. We all have our verbal crutches, of course, but for McCalla, the choice is a bit ironic. For a full hour on the morning of her first day of tour, the 30-year-old cellist and songwriter schooled me on Haitian history and musical culture. So when she peppers her answers with “you know”’s, it’s funny. Because most of us actually don’t.

On her second solo album, A Day For The Hunter, A Day For The Prey, which was released this past in May, McCalla encapsulates the relationship between classical instrumentation, contemporary folk songs, and traditional Haitian music. A first-generation Haitian-American born in New York City and raised in New Jersey, her own geographic and cultural upbringing inspired the exploration of this connection.

The 12 tracks on A Day For The Hunter, A Day For The Prey—sung in English, French, and Haitian Creole—include a range of original tunes and new arrangements of traditional songs. Although the album name and title track were inspired by Gage Averill’s text A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey: Popular Music and Power in Haiti, the song is one of McCalla’s best originals’ with its percussive, bouncing cello bowing and lyrics of longing. Also included are interpretations of songs by Creole fiddlers Canray Fontenot and Bébé Carrière (“Les plats sont tous mis” and “Bluerunner,” respectively), Haitian protest singer Manno Charlemagne (“Manman”), and traditional vodou songs (“Fey-O” and “Minis Azaka”).

But this jump to being the leading voice in Haitian-American music didn’t happen linearly. McCalla first broke into the American folk scene as part of the Carolina Chocolate Drops around two-and-a-half years ago. She joined the all-black string group as they were recording 2012’s Leaving Eden and officially announced her departure earlier this year. Before that, she was just another musician living in New Orleans, making a living by busking in the streets.

Although McCalla graduated from New York University, where she studied cello performance with a focus in chamber music, she recalls having to work harder there to achieve the same goals she accomplished in New Orleans. And while her parents, two immigrants and Haitian rights activists imparted their Haitian identity to her while growing up in Greater New York, McCalla didn’t find the most meaningful connection to it until she moved to New Orleans. In The Big Easy, she was able to pay rent, bills, and student loans just by playing Bach in the streets. It was there and the confluence began.

“In New Orleans, I found myself learning about all of these cultural connections,” she says, speaking from Durham, North Carolina on the morning of the start of her North American tour. “Some of them you can see just around town, just walking around. I would go to the cemetery and see my family’s name on the gravestones, various family names. Or just going to a second line! It’s so much like rara, which is another Haitian tradition. There’s a lot of differences, but you can see that there’s a clear influence that Haitian culture has had on New Orleans and Louisiana. And then beyond that, when you go into music, I feel like the lines get even more blurred.”

Of course, McCalla is not the first to make these connections or bring Haitian music to American culture. Just recently, the 2014 compilation of songs from the Duvalier regimes Haiti Direct: Big Band, Mini Jazz & Twoubadou Sounds, 1960-1978 won over critics and fans. Even this year, Lakou Mizik forged cross-cultural connections with debut, Wa Di Yo, created in the style of the Sierra Leon Refugee All-Stars band.

And in academia, the range of texts is deep and diverse. McCalla offers examples like The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square by Ned Sublette and The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry, by Ned and Constance Sublette. Laurent Dubois’ brand new release, Banjo: America’s African Instrument, fits in this vein, as well.

Dubois, a professor of history and romance studies at Duke University, met McCalla for the second time after that tour opener in Durham. Mutual friend Laura Wagner, anthropologist and Project Archivist for Radio Haiti, tipped him off to her music, and after Dubois attended a previous show in Raleigh, he and McCalla stayed in touch since.

Although Dubois initially studied, researched, taught, and wrote about Haitian history and immigration, his more recent books like Banjo explore its cultural facets. And as a musician himself who plays guitar, percussion, and banjo, Dubois finds A Day For The Hunter, A Day For The Prey so powerful.

“A big part of [Banjo] is about reconstructing the history of the banjo in Haiti and its place notably in this ballad, troubadour music…[It’s] actually really important music in Haiti, but is not recorded much,” Dubois’ says on a call during office hours on campus.

“When I first heard she was interpreting that kind of music, I was super excited and glad that she was channeling that and bringing it to new audiences,” he continues. “She plays them in a really pared down way, almost like how a street musician would play. You might hear a person singing these songs with a banjo in Haiti…in Le Cap or Jacmel.”

But this music needs some sort of historical context (especially to be fully understood by foreign audiences) because Haitian Creole can present a language barrier and the socio-political roots of these songs draw directly from Haitian history not often studied in the U.S.

Although originally discovered by the Christopher Columbus in 1492, the Spaniards surrendered Haiti, then populated by indigenous Taíno, to the French in the early 1600s. Called Saint-Domingue, the colonized island state became a lucrative locale for sugarcane production that was worked by slaves imported from Africa. But while the French Revolution raged across the Atlantic, both free and enslaved people of color in Haiti revolted against the French control during the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804. Throughout their attempts at abbreviating this history, both McCalla and Dubois emphasize two main points: Haiti was the first black nation and the second independent country in the Americas.

With a history rife with political tension, Haiti’s art and music naturally filled with statements of social commentary. As McCalla began digging into this music, she recalls asking her father—former Executive Director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights¬—to translate some of the words for her.

“I liked the songs! I liked the melodies, I liked the rhythms,” she gushes, remembering her initial reactions. But, she continues, “When I started understanding the words, I realized that there’s this really cool tradition of social and political commentary in song in Haiti…I was just floored by that. And it helped me learn more about what Haitian culture really is beyond just things that I read in the news or the things that my parents would talk about. For me, that’s been really eye opening because I see now how racist the world really is. By learning more about my Haitian roots and what the real history is, what the music is about, [I learned] there are so many things that are messed up about our perception in the United States.”

A Day For The Hunter, A Day For The Prey begins to address those injustices and American parallels, but through McCalla’s personal journey. The vodou songs she chose were inspired by spending summers in Port-au-Prince with her maternal grandmother, a teacher and vodou priestess. The classic Haitian song “Peze Café” she interpreted is about police brutality. As she writes, “The song says my mother sent me to weigh the coffee, and when I arrived the police arrested me, and ‘Sa m’ap di lakay l’em arrive’ or what will I say when I get home.” It’s all too relatable in America these days, with the memories of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile still weighing heavy on this nation.

In her own way, McCalla’s performances help keep a feedback loop of music and history going between these countries and its people. By performing for audiences unfamiliar with Haitian history and culture, she’s subtly introducing these stories, her stories, through original, classical-meets-contemporary interpretations.

And it’s not just in the U.S., either. McCalla’s current tour takes her through the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and France, where some of the lyrics can even be understood in their original language. She’s spreading knowledge of Haitian culture in a micro sense, as well as universal experiences of overcoming historical trauma through both history and heart.

“So much of what music can do most beautifully is humanize things that have become dehumanized,” says Dubois. “[Leyla is] just so uniquely positioned to play this kind of music and connect these different genres…She’s addressing the issue of the Haitian diaspora—that is her own story—in this way, so I think that’s really exciting and interesting.”