Leyla McCalla album review: ‘Vari-Colored Songs’

Leyla McCalla - Leyla McCalla will be performing in the Washington, DC area.


“Vari-Colored Songs”

Kindred spirits: Richie Havens, Billie Holiday, Sacred Shakers

Show: Wednesday at the Hamilton. Show starts at 7:30 p.m. 202-787-1000. www.thehamiltondc.com. $12 in advance,
$14 at the door.

On her evocative solo debut, “Vari-Colored Songs,” Leyla McCalla, formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, pays tribute to the poetry of Langston Hughes. Yet the album is just as much a self-portrait, and Hughes’s writing is merely one element in a musically direct but thematically complex project.

Like the Drops, two of whom appear on this album, McCalla seeks to highlight the largely forgotten genre of African American string-band music. But the New Orleans resident is also a classically trained cellist and a second-generation Haitian American. So there’s a hint of European art song in her style, and old, jaunty Haitian folk songs are scattered among the settings of Hughes’s verse. The melodies were mostly composed by McCalla but include Kurt Weill’s European-cafe treatment of the poet’s “Lonely House.”

TOPSHOTS A Nepalese reveller dances while covered in vermilion powder during the Bisket Jatra festival held in celebration of the Nepalese New Year in Thimi, some 10kms east of Kathmandu on April 15, 2014. The festival, which started on April 10 is celebrated for nine days by the ethnic Newar community in Thimi, Bhadgaun. AFP PHOTO/ Prakash MATHEMAPRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images

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Whether working with a few other musicians or multi-tracking her own cello, banjo, guitar and limpid voice, McCalla keeps the arrangements simple. That suits Hughes’s lines, which often have the cadence and simplicity of song lyrics. It also heightens the impact of the album’s centerpiece, “Song for a Dark Girl,” a stark account of a lynching “way down south in Dixie.” In looking to the past, McCalla isn’t simply reclaiming a style of music. She’s also honoring the struggle and determination that originally kindled it.

— Mark Jenkins

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