What’s New in Old School

When I saw Leyla McCalla’s name on the program for the opening-night reception at the National Artist Teacher Fellowship convening in Boston last October, all I saw was: cellist. Oh goodie, I thought, modern classical music . . . That’s just what I want after a long day of airport foolishness. Because I failed to read very far into her bio, I missed the fact that she had been among the several differing line-ups of critically acclaimed and Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, an African-American old-time band whose music I really enjoy but whose names, frankly, I never bothered to learn. (Rhiannon Giddens was another of the members.) As the other teacher-artists and I sipped on drinks and munched on high-end catering, my interest was piqued by an old banjo lying on the floor among the mic cables that surrounded a chair with a cello leaning on it. It was when I saw Leyla McCalla in the hallway prior to her solo performance that I knew she looked familiar.

I went back and actually read what had been given to me— and then I got excited! A Southern boy who’d spent the whole day heading north, I was glad to see they’d brought the South to me. I got a fresh beer, perched myself on our impromptu front row of gathered chairs, and got ready to soak it in.

That night, McCalla played, for about a half-hour, a range of songs completely unlike what I knew from the Carolina Chocolate Drops.  This material, much of which can be heard on her 2014 album, Vari-Colored Songs, was a one-eighty from the foot-stomping barn-dance music I was expecting. Her songs were delightfully polished and subtle and personal when compared to the raw whine of insistence that can mark old-time music’s high-pitched harmonies, squeaky fiddles, and blazing-fast picking. No, these solo sounds were fine flowing linen, not sturdy burlap or patchwork quilt.

After the release of Vari-Colored Songs, which bears the subtitle “A Tribute to Langston Hughes,” McCalla and her then-new album were discussed (and hailed) far and wide in early 2014 in Paste, Afro-Punk, the New York Daily News, and on NPR, including a feature spot on “Folk Alley.” I’ll admit right now that, for all of my fascination with good music, I’m nearly inept at knowing what’s-new, so what’s-kind-of-new usually falls on my head fortuitously. That night last fall, Leyla McCalla’s music did just that.

Back in 2013, when I was still listening to my Chocolate Drops CDs, completely ignorant of McCalla’s solo work, The Guardian was reporting this:

She soon became a fixture on the streets of New Orleans, strapping her faithful cello on her back and riding her drop-handlebar bike to a regular spot in the French Quarter, outside the police station.

which sounded a lot like The Music Maker Foundation’s video snippet on McCalla, featuring a similar scene:

The more I fished around, learning what I could about this young musician, songwriter and singer, the more charming she became to me. The person she had been face-to-face, with an endearingly youthful smile and a resonant handling of emotional subjects, was also the person who appeared in the videos and articles.

When I passed an email back and forth with her and her manager last October, McCalla was going into the studio, and didn’t have time for an interview right then. Though the pair didn’t share much, I found out what I should have already known when I checked her website’s blog, which had this tidbit posted from last September:

I am so excited to be headed back into the studio in October to start working on my second album, A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey, who’s name was inspired by a book of that same name by Gage Averill about the intersection of music, power and politics in Haiti. I have so many exciting guests and collaborators to announce, I can’t wait to share more info soon!

We’ll have to wait and see who these “guests and collaborators” will be. Just me, I’m looking forward to seeing what’s new in old school.

In the nearer future, McCalla and Rhiannon Giddens will be sharing the stage later this month: they’re playing Lincoln Center on February 24. As much as I love live music, I can’t lie and say there’s even a chance I’ll be there . . . but hey, what’s it hurt to hope?

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