Leyla McCalla on Cello by Tequila Minsky

Tequila Minsky writes about Leyla McCalla.

The Lady and Her Music (Photo by T. Minsky)

People find circuitous routes to their careers and sometimes you have to leave home to come back home.  This is how it is for Leyla McCalla, who plays the cello and after moving to New Orleans, has at least briefly returned back to NY to record her first CD. Things are different than when she left New York, a year ago.

Leyla lived a year in Brooklyn ­–Ft. Greene–while finishing up a music degree at NYU. This was followed by four years in Williamsburg–also Brooklyn, playing music gigs around town, bartending to pay the rent, and teaching  a little.   During that time, McCalla met a street performer playing near her local  L–train subway line, “She told me she plays in a duo–guitar and violin– on the street in New Orleans, and she wanted me to play with them and offered me her place to stay.“

Leyla visited and stayed for a month, the beginning of many back and forth trips to New Orleans.  Performing in the street paid for her trips. A year ago, she took the plunge and moved her domicile.

When they say ‘street musician’ in New Orleans, they mean it. The streets are closed in the French Quarter, on weekdays from 11-4pm and to 7pm on weekends.  Leyla’s day-job, three to four days a week, is as a musician where on Royal Street near Café Beignet, she situates herself on a crate or a borrowed chair from the café, literally in the middle of the street.  Weekends, there is a lot more people-traffic.

The musician enchants passers-by with Bach Cello Suite #1. The Sarabande from Suite #3 is a real crowd pleaser. Impressed that she’s playing classical music– a change of pace from ever-present New Orleans jazz, tourists circle around her.

About changing her habitat?  In New York, she says, “I was feeling a little too comfortable and I needed to make a move.”   When she left, she was clear that she was moving  “to get creative inspiration.”

In New Orleans, music is all around; she’s getting the inspiration she so desired and also is finding  reinforcement for the quest in making a career in music.   And, she took up the banjo, an easy transition with the same strings.  She knows the notes.

For now, the street gig suits her, “I like people,” she says. On the street, she hooks up with other musicians and perfects her presentation to the public.  Leyla also teaches with the New Orleans String Project.  She found a path to completely make her way doing music. 

One day while she’s playing, after listening for a while, a man asks if she has a sister, Sabine, in North Carolina–– she does.

This man, Tim Duffy made note when Sabine told him, “My sister is a street musician in New Orleans.” On vacation in New Orleans with his family, he kept an eye out for Leyla playing and after listening to her for hours, they met to talk.

Duffy heads the Music Makers Relief Foundation, an organization that steps in as a safety net to improve the lives for old-timer musicians, the bluesyist of the blues players, folk over the age of 65, with an income less than $18,000.

“These are American traditional musicians without pension plans and health insurance,” Leyla explains. “Some of them don’t know when their birthday is.”

Music Makers’ mission is nourishing the roots of American music, offering financial support and helping to arrange performances and producing new CDs.

The Foundation also has a  “Next Generation Artists” program that encourages and mentors younger artists performing Southern traditional music. Leyla was invited to be a part.  Her music, apart from classical, is original acoustic inspired by folk, some New Orleans jazz and some arrangements from Haitian popular traditions.

She now has a booking agent who lined up a City Winery gig in Manhattan, in late July. She opened for renowned Malian singer Oumou Sangare. What an honor!

Leyla sang original music composed to the poetry of Langston Hughes and Haitian popular songs–­Meci Bon Dieu and L’Atibonite.  Her cello technique is strumming and finger picking–- no cello bowing.  Fellow New Orleans’ musicians Taylor Smith on upright bass and Nathan Harrison on banjo accompanied her. For some other numbers, she played the banjo.

Leyla’s New York trip was planned to record her CD, adding to the four pieces she had recorded  earlier, which were the tribute to Langston Hughes. New York musician and friend Ezekiel Healy on dobro, lap steel guitar joined with her New Orleans musicians during the recording session.

There’s a lot to keep her busy with music these days, writing, performing, and working on the CD.   Getting the artwork together and mixing the music, Leyla anticipates a release date early next year. She’ll also be backing New York, performing in January as part of APAP, Association of Professional Arts Presenters.


Ibi Aanu Zoboi: Beyond “The Harem”

Ibi Aanu Zoboi in Haiti (Zoboi photos)

Meet Ibi Aanu Zoboi. She was born in Port-au-Prince as Pascale Philantrope. She is a talented Haitian author whose pen faces the future. “I want to see Haitian Sci-Fi,” Ibi says. “We need new narratives.”

Her story, “Earthseed” appears in the Caribbean Writer’s 25th Anniversary mega issue: Ayiti/Haiti. Earlier this year, Ibi’s showed her ‘noir’ side in the Danticat-edited Haiti Noir.

The anthology received a lot of attention from readers and critics. “The Harem”—Ibi’s well-received contribution—is set during the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti January 12, 2010. Her story follows an unapologetic philanderer who must choose which of his lovers to save as the city collapses into mounds of rubble.

In this VoicesfromHaiti InnerView, Ibi Aanu Zoboi shares the inspiration behind “The Harem.” Other works by Ibi can be found on the web, in literary journals, and anthologies, including the award-winning Dark Matter: Reading the Bones. She is a recipient of a grant in literature and writing from the Brooklyn Arts Council for the Daughters of Anacaona Writing Project, a program for Haitian teen girls. Ibi lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Ibi’s InnerView in English      In Haitian Creole

Happy Reading,

Katia D. Ulysse

Citizen Buyu Ambroise

When they call you Dyaspora, this is meant to be an insult. They use the word like a stick; they prod and poke and stab you with it. The word Dyaspora has become like a scar on your reputation. On your life. To be called Dyaspora is to be considered stained. Branded. They object to you claiming your own, true, and only heritage. They try to revoke your right to be who you are: A Haitian. They try, but this is one they cannot win. . . Haitian once, Haitian for life. Haitian no matter what. . .

Buyu Ambroise is one of the greatest jazz musicians living in the diaspora today. He is a legend among saxophone players everywhere. He has traced the path for many other jazz artists, particularly those of Haitian origin. For those who do not know him, this VoicesfromHaiti InnerView is an introduction. You will be inspired by his thoughts.

His forthcoming CD, Dyazpora, will be available soon.

Happy reading, viewing, and listening.  Kenbe djanm. . . 

InnerView in English     In Haitian Creole 


(Music performed by Buyu Ambroise and Frederic Lasfargeas – Produced by Jazzmel productions) 






Michel DeGraff: Our Word is Our Bond

Professor DeGraff and Student in Haiti (photo by Christine W. Low)

In this VoicesfromHaiti InnerView, MIT Linguistics Professor, Michel DeGraff, speaks about his life work: empowering Haitian children through education.



Imagine a classroom in Haiti where students are forbidden to speak their mother tongue, Kreyòl. Instruction in most subject areas is in a foreign language: French. Students who lapse into Kreyòl are punished by teachers who themselves struggle with the foreign language. Most of the state-mandated exams are administered in high-level French. For some two hundred years, the practice has persisted even though modern linguists have demonstrated that Kreyòl—like any other bona fide language—can efficiently express any kind of complex meaning and is, therefore, a perfectly adequate instrument for instruction.

At home, in their communities, in the tarp cities, in the marketplace, with their parents and siblings, most students and teachers speak only Kreyòl. The songs they sing all day are in Kreyòl. The tales they tell at dusk are in Kreyòl. They think and dream in Kreyòl … until school starts the next day.

Full Text in English and in Haitian Creole. 

Happy reading (and viewing)

Katia D. Ulysse


Honoring the Past. Celebrating the New Journey.