Music, Power And Politics Collide On Leyla McCalla's 'A Day For The Hunter' A classically trained cellist with songs rooted in Haitian folk, McCalla embraces the intersections of art and history in her work. Her new album is A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey.
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Music, Power And Politics Collide On Leyla McCalla's 'A Day For The Hunter'

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Music, Power And Politics Collide On Leyla McCalla's 'A Day For The Hunter'

Music, Power And Politics Collide On Leyla McCalla's 'A Day For The Hunter'

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Musician Leyla McCalla moved to New Orleans for a lot of reasons. The pace of life in New York was getting too crazy and she felt pulled to the musical history in the Big Easy. It was the kind of place where she could explore her own past and the sounds that would bring it to life.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEYLA MCCALLA SONG, "A DAY FOR THE HUNTER, A DAY FOR THE PREY")

MARTIN: Her new album is called "A Day For The Hunter, A Day For The Prey." And on it, you can hear her classical cello training and the Creole influence from her adoptive home.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A DAY FOR THE HUNTER, A DAY FOR THE PREY")

LEYLA MCCALLA: (Singing) If I go away, I want you to pray, not for me, for the souls who have gone away before.

MARTIN: There are some beautiful covers on here, reinterpretations of Haitian folk songs. But this is an original that you wrote. Can you tell me the story in this song?

MCCALLA: Well, I had read a book called "A Day For The Hunter, A Day For The Prey" by an ethnomusicologist named Gage Averill. And the book is about the intersections of music and power and politics in Haiti, which is something that's, you know, endlessly fascinating to me. My family's from Haiti. And it's a big source of my inspiration.

But in the book, he talks about a tradition of songwriting that erupted out of the various refugee crises of the '90s where a lot of people were fleeing Haiti by boat. And I thought about the vulnerability of the position of feeling stuck in your country. And, you know, this song is about a lot of things. But I think it's about that, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A DAY FOR THE HUNTER, A DAY FOR THE PREY")

MCCALLA: (Singing) A day for the hunter, a day for the prey. A day for the hunter, a day for the prey. Day for the hunter, a day for the prey.

MARTIN: May I ask how your family came to leave Haiti?

MCCALLA: Both of my parents emigrated to the United States with their families during the '60s, during the Duvalier era. My father was 13 years old. And my mother was 5 years old. And they didn't meet till, you know, about 15 years later.

MARTIN: Are they musical?

MCCALLA: They are definitely music lovers. When I was growing up, you know, my parents listened to a lot of Haitian roots music along with, like, Paul Simon and James Taylor and...

MARTIN: Those people don't play the cello.

MCCALLA: ...Stevie Wonder. (Laughter) Yeah, very far from the - I think they were like - what, our daughter wants to play cello, and she actually, like, is sticking with it (laughter)?

MARTIN: How did you find that instrument?

MCCALLA: I was required to take an instrument in the fourth grade as part of our public school program in Maplewood, N.J. And I chose cello, violin and flute. And my parents didn't realize this, but I thought that the cello was part of the woodwind family. I thought it was like piccolo.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MCCALLA: And the first day of fourth grade, I go into the cafeteria and they have the percussion and the woodwinds and the brass and the strings. And I march right up to the woodwind table. And I'm checking out all the instruments. And I'm like, all right, yeah. I'm ready to play the cello.

And I hear this woman screaming across the room - Leyla McCalla, Leyla McCalla. I turn around, and she just said cello. And that was the first time I had laid my eyes on it. And I was like - whoa, the cello is a huge violin.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MCCALLA: I had no idea. And because it wasn't, like, the most popular instrument, I kind of got stuck playing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEYLA MCCALLA SONG, "LITTLE SPARROW")

MARTIN: And you play it in all kinds of ways. I mean, you get a really broad range of vocal expression from that thing.

MCCALLA: One of the other most formative experiences of my life was meeting a teacher of mine whose name is Rufus Cappadocia. I met him when he was 18 years old. And I saw Rufus playing cello in a Haitian roots music band. And that just, like, blew my mind. I could not believe that it was even happening in front of my eyes. And I thought, like - wait, that's an option for, like, playing music in the world? I want to do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SALANGADOU")

MCCALLA: Salangadou, Salangadou (singing in Haitian Creole).

MARTIN: What is that lyric?

MCCALLA: (Speaking Haitian Creole) means - where has my little girl gone? And Salangadou is the name of the girl that's missing. And, you know, I always get really into the narrative of a song and the story behind the song. I think that's what really attracts me a lot of the time to different songs. And so this song, I always imagined it as, like, you know, the mother and the aunts and all the women, like, as the search party for this girl.

MARTIN: You're a mom, too, aren't you?

MCCALLA: And I'm a mom, yeah (laughter). And so, you know, honestly after we recorded the song, I was driving home. And I listened to it, like, four times in a row, just bawling my eyes out, just crying 'cause I was like I can't believe, you know, how much I love the way that we did it. But it just - it was the first time that I had had that emotional response to my own voice with a friend's voice. It just felt, like, so sad. I felt like Salangadou was, like, a real person that was missing.

MARTIN: Lastly, I want to play this song "Fey-O," which is, I read in the liner notes, a traditional Haitian Voodoo song, right?

MCCALLA: Mm-hm.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEY-O")

MCCALLA: (Singing in Haitian Creole).

MARTIN: And your mom taught you this?

MCCALLA: She sang it to me. And I thought, wow, that's pretty. And then when my daughter was a baby, I was playing guitar while she was, you know, rocking her in her little rocker, trying to get her to sleep. And I would play this song. And it started to feel like - more like a lullaby. And the song is saying herbs, save my life. My baby's sick. And I'm going to the doctor's house. (Speaking Haitian Creole). And the (speaking Haitian Creole) is the - (speaking Haitian Creole) is, like, the spiritual leader in Haitian Voodoo. And if it's a good (speaking Haitian Creole), then he'll save my life.

And I just loved that concept 'cause I feel like when your child is sick, it does feel like oh, my God, somebody save me. You know, you feel like you're sick. You feel it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEY-O")

MCCALLA: (Singing in Haitian Creole).

MARTIN: So, as you've described it, this album has been this manifestation of your own effort in part to try to connect with your own past. Where are you with that now? What kind of clarity has this project brought you about your own identity?

MCCALLA: I really feel like I've fully embraced who I am, from my personality to my heritage. And, you know, not that I - I don't think that that work really ever ends. I'm not, like, OK, I am who I am and I'm done now. It's great. But I kind of felt like - especially with making this album, I kind of feel like everyone is grappling with that in different stages of their life and different ways and different moments. And I feel like a lot of people can see themselves in some of these songs, you know? That's what I hope.

MARTIN: Leyla McCalla. Her new album is called "A Day For The Hunter, A Day For The Prey." She joined us from the studios of WWNO in New Orleans. Leyla, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

MCCALLA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEYLA MCCALLA SONG, "BLUERUNNER")

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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