As a street busker in New Orleans, Leyla McCalla’s daily routine was relatively simple: “‘Wake up. Get on your bicycle with your cello. Set up your little spot. Play,’” as she recently told Pitchfork. But her performances for tourists only hinted at her complicated background. Born to Haitian parents in New York, McCalla studied classical cello at NYU yet grew tired of the often-times claustrophobic classical scene. She toured with the Grammy-winning North Carolina string band Carolina Chocolate Drops, an experience that helped meld her textbook training with rootsy improvisation.
Now McCalla makes her debut with Vari-Colored Songs, a song cycle that’s equally ambitious and homespun. The record largely takes the poetry of Langston Hughes as its inspiration, but mixes it with traditional Creole and Cajun songs and a few originals. Throughout, McCalla blurs the stylistic lines. Her cello playing is miles away from a stuffy concert hall; instead, she plucks the strings and adds a percussive, earthy element to the instrument. Album standout “Heart Of Gold” even includes some pedal steel guitar, which adds another emotional layer to the song. Hughes’s devastating observation–“I wonder why it’s yes to me but yes sir, sir, to you”–is given new life and a new reading, thanks to a young talent experimenting with the form.