Born in New York City to Haitian immigrant parents and raised in suburban New Jersey (with a couple of teenage years spent in Accra, Ghana), Leyla McCalla experienced a renewed sense of connection with her Haitian heritage after moving to the “Crescent City,” a popular nickname for New Orleans, in 2010. “I feel very at home here,” she says. “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.”
The relocation led to her appearance on the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Grammy-nominated 2012 album, Leaving Eden, as well as extensive concert dates as a touring member of the group. It also deeply enriched McCalla’s own music and sharpened her sense of purpose, setting her on the path that ultimately resulted in the making of her debut album, Vari–Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes.
Named 2013’s Album of the Year by the Sunday Times of London and Songlines magazine, Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes made a profound impression upon all who heard it. The record, which set some of Hughes’s poems to McCalla’s music and included original compositions and Haitian folk songs, received rapturous reviews for its haunting mixture of music and message.
Her second album, A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey, was released in the spring of 2016. Named after the Haitian proverb that also provided the title of Gage Averill’s 1997 book about popular music, power, and politics in Haiti, the album continued to explore the themes of social justice and pan-African consciousness that marked her debut album.
It’s an exhilarating thing, hearing a musical virtuoso explore her voice’s unanticipated potential in all of the ways that Leyla McCalla does.