Leyla McCalla finds inspiration from a variety of sources, whether it is her Haitian heritage, living in New Orleans or dancing at Cajun Mardi Gras. Leyla, a multi-instrumentalist, is a cellist and singer whose distinctive sound is impossible to replicate.
Leyla’s music reflects her eclectic and diverse life experiences, projecting a respect for eloquent simplicity that is rarely achieved. Born in New York City to Haitian emigrant parents, Leyla was raised in suburban New Jersey. As a teenager, she relocated to Accra, Ghana for two years. Upon her return, she attended Smith College for a year before transferring to New York University where she studied cello performance and chamber music. Armed with Bach’s Cello Suites, Leyla moved to New Orleans to play cello on the streets of the French Quarter.
It is the move to New Orleans that signaled a journey of musical and cultural discovery for Leyla. “New Orleans always felt like home to me,” she recalls. “The more I learned about the history of Louisiana, its ties to Haiti and French speaking culture, the more sense of belonging I felt and continue to feel.” Most recently, Leyla has fallen in love with the late Louisiana Creole fiddlers Canray Fontenot and Bébé Carrière and has explored their fiddling styles on the cello.
Leyla’s move to New Orleans also signaled a new stage in her career. It was while playing on the street that she caught the attention of Tim Duffy, the founder and director of the Music Maker Relief Foundation. He invited Leyla to join the Music Maker Relief Foundation family and introduced her to the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a renowned African-American string band. After appearing on the band’s GRAMMY-nominated album Leaving Eden and touring extensively with the group, she now focuses on her solo career.
Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes, Leyla’s debut album, is set for a February 2014 release. The album, which has been years in the making for Leyla, was given a push after a successful Kickstarter campaign in which she surpassed her $5,000 goal by four times to ultimately raise over $20,000. Vari-Colored Songs consists of compositions she has written to Langston Hughes poetry, Haitian folk songs and original pieces. The album features musicians including Rhiannon Giddens and Hubby Jenkins of the Carolina Chocolate Drops as well as New Orleans’ own Don Vappie on tenor banjo and Luke Winslow King on guitar.