For Leyla McCalla's 17th birthday, her father gave her a book of Langston Hughes' poetry. McCalla, a multi-instrumentalist and classically trained cellist, bought anthologies of his work and read any biography she could get her hands on.
"Reading about his life made me want to pursue a creative path," she says. "Sort of a figurehead, or archetype, of what it means to be an artist, to live as an artist, to spread yourself thin sometimes, feast or famine."
On Feb. 4, McCalla releases her solo debut, Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes, which paints a portrait of McCalla's life story, intertwining traditional Haitian arrangements and folk music with original compositions accompanied by Hughes' poetry.
In 2010, McCalla — a New York native born to Haitian parents — moved to New Orleans, where she saw Haitian influence embedded in her adopted city. She studied Haitian folk music and found similarities in New Orleans jazz traditions — including banjo-led string bands and French melodies. "The more I read about Louisiana, the more I read about Haiti," she says. "If I walked into a cemetery I saw my family names everywhere. Dupuy, that's my mom's maiden name."
McCalla's grandfather was a Jamaican who moved to Haiti as an architect. "I grew up very much with a Haitian identity. My parents worked with Haitian human rights. That was really instilled in me," McCalla says. "But moving to New Orleans really helped me understand how that was relevant to my life."
Hughes also found great inspiration in Haiti. He politicized his work after spending months in Haiti in the 1930s, returning home outraged at its poverty and moved by its culture and history. He also had immersed himself in jazz and blues, accompanying Charles Mingus on the 1958 album Weary Blues.
McCalla grew up with albums from Earth, Wind & Fire, Bob Marley and Haitian band Boukman Eksperyans. She began playing cello in fourth grade while in public school and taught herself to play guitar when she was 13, learning finger-picking styles and folk songs from a friend's mother, who was a folk singer. McCalla left Smith College in Massachusetts to study cello and chamber music at New York University.
In New York, McCalla lived the "scattered, freelance cellist, struggling-artist life," she says. "I was playing with a lot of singer-songwriter projects, just random things, playing in five different bands, bartending — I felt fragmented from it all."
McCalla busked in Brooklyn subway stops, Washington Square and Union Square to pay for trips to New Orleans, where she performed outside the gates of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and on Royal Street.
"I knew I could make a living (here) doing this, and I could have more time exploring other things and figure out what I wanted to do, and also if I really wanted to be a musician — I'm playing on the street every day, it'll be real clear soon if I like it," she says.
In New Orleans, she met members of Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Durham, N.C., old-time string band that has resurrected African-American string band music rooted in Piedmont blues and black Appalachia. The band received the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album for its fourth album Genuine Negro Jig (Nonesuch). McCalla joined the band in 2012.
"It is pretty magical to wake up, get on my bike and play my cello, and everyone gets to know you," McCalla says. "I felt really accepted by the community of street performers and musicians. I felt comfortable. All of a sudden it was like, 'OK, now you're going to tour all over the place and be in a band and learn a lot about old-time music and black string music.'"
McCalla launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce Vari-Colored Songs, which met its $5,000 goal in just one week, eventually reaching more than $20,000. She recorded the album in Virginia and New Orleans (at Piety Street Studios), where she picked up banjo player Don Vappie and guitarist Luke Winslow-King. Chocolate Drops members Rhiannon Giddens and Hubby Jenkins appear throughout the album, which also features McCalla's original composition, the plucked cello blues of "When I See the Valley," and several traditional folk arrangements sung in Haitian Creole.
Hughes' poem "Search" — the first song McCalla composed from his poems — takes on a dreamy waltz. She strums her cello on album opener "Heart of Gold" as a pedal steel guitar fades behind her voice, hushed yet full, full of sorrow and joy.
"A lot of his poems just lent themselves to music," she says. "It wasn't like every poem needs to be a song, but certain poems really spoke to me, and they were some of the lesser-known ones.
"It's really this inspirational music. It's kind of safe, too, because his words are so powerful. So simple and powerful and beautiful."