Leyla McCalla was playing music on a street corner in New Orleans when the manager of the Carolina Chocolate Drops approached her about joining their band.
“Within a few months I’m in Nashville at Buddy Miller’s studio recording on Leaving Eden, which was their second Grammy-nominated album,” McCalla recalls, still in disbelief, on this episode of Soul Sisters, recorded at NYC’s Chord Club.
“There are so few black, African-American string players who are interested in playing old time music. I probably know them,” she laughs. “It’s such a white scene, and to have a band called the Carolina Chocolate Drops playing old time music and reclaiming it was such a powerful thing to be a part of.”
McCalla, who volunteered to learn the cello in the fourth grade when she mistakenly thought it was a kind of flute, has turned that happy accident, plus a wealth of Haitian heritage inherited from her parents, into a powerful music career that blends many world traditions into a sound uniquely her own. She tells us about the struggle she faced growing up the daughter of immigrants in New Jersey where, as she puts it, “I wasn’t black enough for the black girls and I was too black for the white girls,” and what ultimately caused her to flee the east coast for the Big Easy, where she found herself “really connecting with people musically and creatively on a completely different plane.”
“The Haitian revolution was one of the reasons why France sold Louisiana to the United States,” she says in detailing the inspiration behind her latest solo effort, A Day For The Hunter, A Day For The Prey (which she performs a track from at the end of this episode).
“I’m a strong believer in understanding the past in order to understand the way forward, and that’s what this album really is about to me.”