As a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Our Native Daughters, as well as in her solo career, Leyla McCalla is part of a new generation of Black women artists who have, in contrast to what they were raised to believe, an affinity for the banjo. For McCalla, a cellist by education, the tenor banjo opened up another side of traditional jazz, and also gave her a foothold into Haitian music, and it has been heavily featured on her solo albums, which include The Capitalist Blues, and a complex interpretation of Langston Hughes titled Vari-Colored Songs.
On a phone call from her home in New Orleans, she explained to Afropop producer Ben Richmond how she came to the instrument and what, good and bad, this iconic American instrument—that, like McCalla, also has roots in Haiti—reveals about our society.
Ben Richmond: Well, I guess the most appropriate way to start is to introduce yourself to the audience.
Leyla: My name is Leyla McCalla, I'm an artist based here in New Orleans, Louisiana. I'm a cellist by trade, but I play guitar and banjo as well and I sing in English and French and Haitian Creole, which is the language of my heritage.
Did you grow up in the U.S.?
Yeah, I grew up mostly in a town called Lakewood, New Jersey, but I was born in Queens, New York— Bayside, Queens. I lived there until I was five. I lived in West Africa when I was in high school for a couple of years—half the time. And I traveled to Haiti many times throughout my childhood, but grew up mostly in the United States.
The program I'm working on is a "Black history of the banjo." What’s the history of how you came to be a banjo player?
I lived in New York City from 2004 until 2010. I went to NYU where I studied cello performance and I graduated in 2007 and left New York for New Orleans in 2010. I think I was just seeing banjos around all these different musical contexts. I was seeing it in the old-time music scene here in New Orleans and with New Orleans traditional jazz— that was the original drum.
And I started to play the banjo because I wanted to learn more about trad jazz. I had learned that the type of banjo played in that style of music is the tenor banjo, which happens to have the same strings as the cello. It was an instrument that I immediately understood the map of. So I found this banjo on banjohangout.org, and fell in love with just this particular instrument. And at that same time I was doing a lot of research about the founding of the city of New Orleans, and the land that we stand on and its colonial history. And I read a book called The World That Made New Orleans [by Afropop's Ned Sublette], and that book talks a lot about the Haitian influence on New Orleans culture and music. And that's something that really resonated with me because my family is from Haiti, and it's been a part of my identity for a long time but also something that felt somewhat distant. And it made me really curious about what Haitian music sounds like, because there's a sort of veneration of traditional music here in New Orleans. And I thought if Haitian culture is so tied to New Orleans then why don't I know more about Haitian traditional music? And in my research I found there's a banjo tradition in Haiti! All of these things felt like an indication I should be a banjo player, basically.
So you came to the banjo through traditional jazz, but what kind of associations did you have with the banjo growing up? Did you know about the history of the banjo as a Black instrument before you started researching?
No, that isn't something I started to understand until I was touring with the Carolina Chocolate Drops in 2011. I thought of the banjo as in the domain of white, rural music. And what do you know? It's actually from Black rural music. The banjo has been appropriated so many times culturally, and that is a history I became familiar with in my journey as a banjo player and as a member of this band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops. It took a lot of research and education to understand the nuances of that history.
The oldest banjos found were in Suriname and Haiti. In your research, did you find that the banjo came from the Caribbean or is this a case of simultaneous invention?
I don't know. The banjo really comes from this family of lute instruments from West Africa, oh, so it came to the United States through slavery. We can speculate it came through Haiti. But who knows? It certainly came through enslaved people who were using what tools they had to recreate their traditions and culture. That much we know.
While exploring Haitian music, have you found some banjo music you really like? I found some quadrille music and also a merengue...
Yeah more of the merengue, which we call twobadou. Rhythmically it's very close to a merengue. I traveled to Haiti in 2012 and 2013, and that was the first time I had gone there as an adult. I went to this city in the north of Haiti called Cap Haitien, where a lot of this rural secular music originates and banjo was central traditionally to that style of music. What that music became is now called kompa. Traditionally it's the banjo and the singer place the cha-cha accompanied by the tambu, which is the Haitian drum. It's secular dance music, and I got really inspired by the content lyrically. The songs talk about a lot of taboo subjects and Haitian culture and society with these beautiful metaphors. It was a huge education for me just linguistically about the Creole language. The twobadou musician who stands out most to me is Althiery Dorival. There's also the band Ti Coca et Wanga Neges, which translates to "Little Coca and The Nightingales." I think I ran into that band at the Calgary Folk Festival many years ago with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. But in that style of music the banjo was replaced by the acoustic guitar, and the acoustic guitar was replaced by the electric guitar, and there was a drum set and electric bass. And that became kompa. So it's interesting; it's kind of the old-time music of Haiti is how I think of it.
While working on the show, I've been impressed at the versatility of the banjo. It can be percussive or melodic.
Definitely. It's definitely addicting, I'll tell you that much. Once you start playing it and getting into that style of music, you want more! It's also just fun to play. Coming at it from a cello player’s perspective, it's like "wow this is so small and transportable!" It doesn't have the resonance of a cello, but it does have a certain character that brings a lot to the table.
When you joined the Carolina Chocolate Drops, did you join as a cello player or were you already playing banjo?
I came in as a cello player, and I was like, "I just started playing the banjo." And they were just like, "Perfect! That totally makes sense."
It must have been nice being around other banjo players and people interested in that same musical history.
Yeah, definitely! I think what was also so interesting is that we all played different banjos. Everyone in that band played banjo and we managed to not have any overlap. Rhiannon was playing a minstrel banjo; Hubie was playing a five-string steel-string banjo; Dom was playing plectrum banjo, and I was playing tenor banjo—jazz-style because there's also Irish tenor banjo. That led not only to interesting conversations about the history and genesis of the instrument, but new techniques and different sounds.
Did you end up learning clawhammer style or anything?
No, not at all! I can make things sound jazzy, but I've been playing a lot of Haitian music. I mostly strum and sometimes play melody. I kind of think I play the banjo like a cello player—I'm mostly self-taught on banjo; I never took banjo lessons. I just had recordings I tried to emulate. I didn't have a methodology or technique, and I feel I'm still on my journey, despite the fact that I've released all these records. There's so much to learn; it's such a different instrument.
On your album Capitalist Blues, did you choose to use the banjo as a reference to how Haitian music can address taboo topics?
The cello is such an incredibly rich texture, to be able to contrast that with the sound of the banjo felt like it offered a new layer of complexity and historical depth to the music. There are songs that start on banjo and end up on cello and songs that start on cello that end up on banjo, depending on what I feel is going to express the song the best. That really varies song to song. But in general, it's just a really good tool for talking about Haitian music, for talking about history, for making connections between Haiti and the United States and these influences from the African diaspora that don't get celebrated for what they are. They get appropriated and then acknowledged. It's been a part of my mission as an artist to create conversations around why that is and how we can change that dynamic, which is rooted in a white supremacist society. And I just want to uproot all of that through my work. And the banjo is just a very powerful tool for that.
You're part of a group—literally the group Our Native Daughters, but also a generational group—of young Black women artists who are playing the banjo. Can you talk about this intersection, between your own past and the banjos past?
I'm not sure if I know where that intersection is other than in my mind and in my body and using the banjo to help me understand who I am and why I'm drawn to this music that I'm drawn to, and finding a lot of historical connection along the way. And I've talked to a lot of other young Black women who are on that path and that seems to be the theme: "This feels like it's a part of me even though my society never quite made me feel that way. I'm drawn to this." And it feels like a reclamation that is happening, but also reckoning with why: why do I believe this? Why do I believe this is not something for me? And why do other people find it odd that I'm exploring this? What has happened along the way to create that confusion?
And can you share any conclusions you've come to?
I think it's the same conclusion: we are in a moment of deconstructing white supremacist narratives about who we should be and how we should be in the world. And once you know about the banjo and its history it challenges all of those things. And it challenges me! To figure out those things for myself, for my own healing and acknowledging who I really am too. What happens with our white supremacist society is that it creates Blackness as a monolith, and I never felt like I fit into any of the stereotypes. I feel like most people don't feel like they fit into the stereotypes. I think my connection with the banjo has breathed new life into my understanding of the social dynamics in our society and why they need to be challenged in order to create positive social change.
Do you have any upcoming musical projects or releases?
Well, I recorded an album late last year that I'm trying to figure out how to release. It's pretty exciting; it's inspired by a project that I was a part of called "Breaking the Thermometer to Hide A Fever," which was inspired by a history of Radio Haiti. It involves a lot of research I did in the Radio Haiti archives, housed at Duke University. It's actually a multimedia performance piece that I premiered last March, that I am now bringing to life as an album. I'm aiming at a fall 2021 release. We'll see, everything kind of feels up in the air these days. I'm also the mother of three small children: I have a 6-year-old and two 2-and-a-half-year-olds. So just getting through this year, and having them be happy and healthy is also one of the major goals.