Leyla McCalla's Cello Channels Langston Hughes - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Leyla McCalla's Cello Channels Langston Hughes

Leyla McCalla's Cello Channels Langston Hughes

By Lorena O'Neil

SourceBen Depp


Because never have two artists — Leyla McCalla + Langston Hughes — deserved each other more.

By Lorena O'Neil

If you’re craving Langston Hughes’ beautiful words set to a hand-plucked cello fused with a tenor banjo or guitar melody, then Leyla McCalla’s your gal. (If you’re not craving that, then get a little dose of culture, my friend.)

Classically trained cellist McCalla released her debut album on February 4, 2014, titled Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes. The album is a mix of McCalla’s original compositions — Haitian Creole songs and eight of Hughes’ poems set to music. While a few musicians guest-star on the album, the spotlight lies on McCalla, who often layers tracks of herself playing different instruments, and sings in English, French and Creole.

Being simple is powerful.

— Leyla McCalla

“One of the biggest things that I think this album has initiated in me is just learning a lot more about the history of the U.S., the history of Haiti and the history of Louisiana,” says McCalla. “And understanding where black culture comes from and singing about that and writing about that.”

The New Orleans resident was born in Queens, New York, to Haitian immigrant parents, and raised in New Jersey. The 28-year-old is often attracted to songs that are “very depressing” and about difficult times in life or in a culture. “The thread is being able to dance with that,” she says, “and bounce off of it and have it be part of a creative process instead of a tragedy all of the time.” 

McCalla started playing the cello in fourth grade, and by age 13, she was training with a teacher who taught at Juilliard and decided she wanted to make music her profession. In high school she moved between public, private and international schools. When she and her parents — both of whom are human-rights activists — relocated to Ghana for a few years during that time, her classical cello training slowed down. “At the time, it kind of felt like everything was falling apart,” says McCalla.

After starting out at Smith College, McCalla transferred to New York University. She met Rufus Cappadocia, who played the five-string electric cello, while she was in New York. She began to take lessons with him and started moving away from classical music. “I knew I needed chops and training, and I did love the music, but I remember feeling like I can’t be around these people my whole life,” she says. “I just felt like there was more.”

The album was quite the accomplishment for Leyla, who raised funds to make it via Kickstarter, where she asked for $5,000 and ended up raising more than four times her goal. In the past she has toured with the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, but she said it was important to her that she work on her career as a solo artist. 

Next project: McCalla hopes to bring Louisiana musicians down to Haiti to collaborate and make music together.

McCalla herself says she has learned lessons from reading and studying Langston Hughes. One of his most important teachings? “That being simple is powerful,” she says. “One of the things you appreciate about his work so much is that he’s able to present very complex ideas with very simple words.”

Complexity presented in beautiful simplicity? If you listen to Vari-Colored Songs, you’ll see McCalla has been quite the dedicated Hughes student.

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