Leyla McCalla Rereleases 'Vari-Colored Songs'

Oct 18, 2020
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

At 35, Leyla McCalla is already known as a groundbreaking talent. She was a founding member of Our Native Daughters and a cellist for the Grammy Award-winning folk group Carolina Chocolate Drops. But it was her first solo album in 2013 that shaped the kind of musician she wanted to be. It's titled "Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute To Langston Hughes."

LEYLA MCCALLA: "Vari-Colored Songs" is an album that has set me on my musical path. The songs are largely inspired by the African American poet Langston Hughes - a lot of poems that I wrote music to and that kind of encouraged me to continue on this path of songwriting and composing and arranging traditional music.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Vari-Colored Songs" also includes Haitian folk songs to celebrate McCalla's Haitian background. The album had a limited release until it ran out of print. But it's now been rereleased and is once again available to the public.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEART OF GOLD")

MCCALLA: (Singing) If I had a heart of gold, as some folks I know, I'd up and sell my heart of gold and head North with the dough.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The album comes to us after a summer of protests against police brutality and racial injustice. But the timing, McCalla says, has made her feel more confident about her decision to put "Vari-Colored Songs" and Langston Hughes' words back into focus.

MCCALLA: Watching the public discourse really shift about racism and race relations have strengthened my resolve in this rerelease. I always thought of that as something as, like, OK, you do that 20 years or, you know, 40 years later, not seven. (Laughter) But yeah, I feel that so many of the songs on this record really speak to the heart of these issues in a very graceful way. And, you know, I was really drawn to that about Langston Hughes' work - you know, the way that he's able to infuse so much nuance and power into his words.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AS I GREW OLDER/DREAMER (FEAT. YAH SUPREME)")

YAH SUPREME: And I ask you, do you understand my dreams? Sometimes, you say you do. And sometimes, you say you don't. Either way, it doesn't matter. I continue to dream.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And McCalla has included a new song on this rerelease. It's called "As I Grow/Dreamer," (ph) which combines two of Hughes' poems, "I Continue To Dream" and "As I Grew Older." She composed the music almost a decade ago, but it was never recorded in the first edition of "Vari-Colored Songs" until now.

MCCALLA: When we were thinking about a rerelease and, you know, rereleasing it through Smithsonian Folkways, I remember saying, there's one piece that I would love for people to be able to hear - that it's not my voice. And I don't know if you guys would be interested in rereleasing that because it's more me as a composer than me as a singer or even a cellist, even though I play cello on the track. And I just paired these two poems - just came out so beautifully.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AS I GREW OLDER/DREAMER (FEAT. YAH SUPREME)")

YAH SUPREME: I have almost forgotten my dream. But it was there then in front of me, bright like a sun, my dream.

MCCALLA: I think that the message is to believe in the process of growth, to love your Black skin and to keep reaching towards the sun. I remember feeling very young when I was putting these pieces together. But these particular pieces gave me a sort of - offered me some wisdom about growing older and continuing to dream.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AS I GREW OLDER/DREAMER (FEAT. YAH SUPREME)")

YAH SUPREME: Help me to shatter this darkness, to smash this night, to break this shadow into a thousand lights of sun, into a thousand whirling dreams of sun.

MCCALLA: One thing that I love about making music and songwriting is that songs continue to gain power over time. And I think that my voice has gotten more powerful and more sure of itself in my own artistic journey. And these poems continue to reflect the reality of the moment that we're living in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SONG FOR A DARK GIRL")

MCCALLA: (Singing) Way down South in Dixie...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Leyla McCalla. She is rereleasing her first solo album, "Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute To Langston Hughes." It is available right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SONG FOR A DARK GIRL")

MCCALLA: (Singing) To a crossroads tree way down South... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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