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Cellist, Banjoist, and Singer-Songwriter Leyla McCalla Revisits Her Own Root System, on The Checkout

Kevin Millet
Leyla McCalla

Leyla McCalla has traveled a winding path as a musician, from the European classical canon to the folkways of her Caribbean heritage. Born into a Haitian-American family in Queens, she was raised in Maplewood, and brought up in the New Jersey public school system. 

In this edition of My Music on The Checkout, McCalla shares her story from the Mundial Montreal conference. She tells us about her early experience as a promising classical cellist of color, her breakout success as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and her decision to strike out on her own, creating original songs in the rustic Americana tradition, sometimes scored to the poetry of Langston Hughes.

The episode includes a representative sample of McCalla’s music: portions of a Bach cello suite, a Carolina Chocolate Drops song, and the title track of her 2016 album A Day For The Hunter, A Day For The Prey. We’ll also hear a taste of "Mesi Bondye," a Haitian folk song by Frantz Casseus, which represents a major focus for McCalla.

“Haitian culture has been so stigmatized in the American consciousness, and I think there’s a lot of really ugly, racist reasons behind that,” she says. “So I’m very committed to dismantling those ideas through my music.”

Subscribe to The Checkout podcast on iTunes and Stitcher.

And please join us for a live taping of The Checkout, A Year In Jazz, on Tuesday, Dec. 12 at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Hosted by WBGO's Nate Chinen, it will feature Giovanni Russonello (The New York Times), Michelle Mercer (NPR), and Eugene Holly, Jr. (Downbeat) .

For more than 15 years, Simon Rentner has worked as a host, producer, broadcaster, web journalist, and music presenter in New York City. His career gives him the opportunity to cover a wide spectrum of topics including, history, culture, and, most importantly, his true passion of music from faraway places such as Europe, South America, and Africa.