Cellist Leyla McCalla was playing Bach on a New Orleans street corner when she was approached by Carolina Chocolate Drops manager Tim Duffy, who subsequently asked to represent her. She played with the Carolina Chocolate Drops for two years. McCalla's dream of recording an album of songs based on words by poet Langston Hughes seemed within reach. "Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes," McCalla's 13-song debut, finds the Smith College student singing Hughes' texts in warm, resonant tones, accompanying herself on cello, guitar and banjo and throwing in some traditional Haitian music for good measure. McCalla, who'll play a show at Cafe Nine in New Haven on Saturday, Feb. 15, answered a few questions for CTNow about her musical past and many influences.
CTNow: What was your musical activity like when you were a student at Smith in Northampton?
Leyla McCalla: I played in the orchestra as well as a chamber ensemble and I was taking private cello lessons with John Sessions, preparing for my audition at NYU. I was very focused on classical music and developing my classical technique.
CTNow: In what ways have music fans become more knowledgeable about the scope of American folk music and traditions?
LM: I think more information is getting out into the public about the African roots of American music. In general, music fans have more access to information about different strands of American folk through the Internet and sharing on social media. If you're interested, it's easier than ever to find what you're looking for.
CTNow: As a musician who's delved into the past maybe more than your standard player, are there years, eras, genres, regions that you're especially keen on learning more about or incorporating into your material?
LM: Yes, tons! Things that pop into my mind immediately are Haiti in the 1930's when Alan Lomax and Langston Hughes were traveling there and collecting music and ideas. I love the raw sound of troubadour music from Haiti. It has changed over the past few decades but I'm always trying to find the rawest way to play it. I'd also love to travel to Bahia, Brazil in the late 1960's and check out some of the artists in the Tropicalia movement performing live. Tropicalia was a movement as well as a genre of music in Brazil that combined American rock and roll, experimental and Afro-Brazilian rhythms. It was very progressive and yet is very clearly rooted in Brazilian culture. I love how seamless that combination becomes in the hands of artists like Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Tom Ze and Jorge Ben Jor and it's something that I definitely hope to bring to my music.
CTNow: If you could time-travel to a specific year in American music to play with some of the figures then, when and who would that be?
LM: If I could, I would travel back to the '50s and play cello with Jimi Hendrix when he was a teenager playing guitar.
LEYLA MCCALLA plays on Saturday, Feb. 15, at 9 p.m. at Cafe Nine in New Haven. Information: 203-789-8281, cafenine.com