If you have not heard of Leyla McCalla, you will. She’s the gifted Haitian-American cellist who plays with the Grammy-winning string band Carolina Chocolate Drops. Leyla answers a few questions on a telephone interview. Enjoy!
Do you get nervous before a gig?
I wouldn’t say I get nervous at all. Making music with the Carolina Chocolate Drops is like a dream come true. We work well together. I have the opportunity to visit new places. I meet new people everyday. This is an experience of a lifetime. I feel more grateful than nervous.
What’s it like for the daughter of a traditional Haitian family to be a musician?
I don’t come from what you might call a traditional Haitian family. My parents have always been pretty liberal. They’re interested in international development and Haitian rights—human rights. My grandfather ran a newspaper. I’ve always been exposed to liberal ideas.
Did you always want to be a musician?
I think so. I was fortunate that my family supported my interest. I was able to receive a classical training, which is invaluable. The classical training came to a halt when my family moved to Ghana. My mother got a job working with refugees in Sierra Leone. While I lived there, I got into photography. Ghana reminded me of Haiti. When we returned to New York, I played music again. Haven’t stopped since.
Name one person who’s been influential to your music career?
My aunt Sarah Dupuy taught me to play the guitar when I was 13. She was the first person who put it in my head that I could actually have a creative life. I am always grateful to her for instilling in me a belief that I could have a career doing something I love. What could be better than that?
Do you still live in New York?
I left New York about 2 years ago. I had reached a point where I didn’t know what I was doing creatively. I fell in love with New Orleans. Something about it reminds me of Haiti. I felt like I understood what New Orleans was about. It didn’t take long for me to decide it was the place where I belong. I played in the street for an entire year, and taught with the New Orleans String Project. I can’t imagine living any place else.
What did your family think about their daughter playing music in the streets of New Orleans?
My dad was really supportive. He believed in what I was doing. I think he knew it would lead somewhere. He never thought that would be the end for me. My mom tried to convince me to get my Masters’ degree. But I felt like I needed to perform. I had to. There was so much I wanted to learn (and still do). New Orleans was the place to do that. I listened to a lot of old-time jazz and Appalachian music. I became very curious about Haitian Troubadour style. That’s where I’m from, you know. When I learned to play some of the Troubadour songs, it felt like I had found something really important. My Kreyòl is pretty bad, so my dad helped translate the lyrics. Understanding them made a world of difference.
As an artist, there’s always the feeling that you want something more. Something else. I’m starting to understand that those feelings are pretty normal. They’ll probably always be there. I accept that about myself. But some of my dreams have come true. Definitely.
What does ‘something more’ look like?
I definitely want to learn to speak Kreyòl. Right now, I understand a lot of it, but can’t really speak it. I want to spend time in Haiti and play with Haitian musicians. I want to record more. While I was in college, I started composing songs to the poems of Langston Hughes. I want to complete that project. I also want a family one of these days. I am learning how to stop and appreciate where I am right now. I’m learning to enjoy the present. That’s all we really have.
Leyla and the Carolina Chocolate Drops perform in Central Park August 11, 2012. See you there!