The sight or sound of a cello tends to conjure specific images of very formal settings—orchestras in concert halls, string quartets in parlors.
But in the hands of Leyla McCalla, the instrument is finding fertile new territory with the help of old folk tunes. After a spell with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the New Orleans-based McCalla issued her debut, Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes, in 2014. She explored her identity with tunes in Haitian Creole, plus the poetry of Hughes. Her voice and cello are perfectly matched, undulating through the same warm, mellow register. Her work there and on the new A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey is graceful and airy.
Those tender songs should float perfectly among the blooms of Duke Gardens.
New Orleans is complex and beautiful and frightening. It's a place of endless creativity and inspiration, fun, community. It's a very segregated place, and that's part of what we're working through in our country—how to live with each other and how to integrate, and if that's possible. I don't know if I'd be doing what I do without having been in New Orleans and having that influence in my world. New Orleans really pushed me to connect with my Haitian heritage in a way that I don't think any other place would have allowed. It opened me up to this whole world of music that is, in some ways, very specific, and, in some ways, very connected to American history and culture.
It's a beautiful experience to watch someone become themselves and be part of their system that's going to help them navigate this world. It's a huge responsibility, but there's also so much light. It's like a big reflecting pool, but it's also something you have no control over, because she's just who she is. There's a lot of overlap in those worlds, but they are separate.
I like the way me and my husband are raising our daughter on the road. She's super social. She's comfortable around adults. She's so musical. She plays this little ukulele and holds it correctly, and she's not even two.
Folk is kind of the root of all music, the people's music. It's the old songs that we've been learning for a long time or that we've known in our culture for a long time. They transform in the way that we perform them and interpret them and reappropriate their melodies and the stories. Every style of music has folk music in it, even when it's noise or free jazz. It's all kind of grounded in that history of oral tradition and people gathering. To me, the folk world is not so separate from other worlds. Culturally, it's very different, because it's pretty much a white-dominated genre of music, in terms of the music industry. But I don't think that's what it is at its core.
They're something that I like to pluck. I play cello and guitar and banjo. I'm doing the same thing, actually, on all of the different instruments I play. It's all plucking and strumming and fingerpicking. When you add the bow into it, especially with the cello, it brings an entirely new world into the strings. I've learned so much about music just by being a cellist and figuring out how to make a beautiful sound—how fast your bow is moving, how much pressure is in the string, all the different dynamics. You could go on forever learning how to play and get different sounds just from one string.
Think about all the things that Langston Hughes had to go through and all of his life experiences, and how he persisted in making his art and speaking his truth. Through his work, he's made black culture and racial issues very accessible to many people. He's totally a humanist. I think a lot of his work is trying to understand human nature, why we're here, and why we are grappling with the things that we are in society. I really see a lot of myself in that.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Bent Strings"