American singer-songwriter Leyla McCalla is claiming her Haitian roots. She lives in Louisiana and connects the traditional musical genres of the U.S. South with the culture of the island where her ancestors came from. On Tuesday, 27 July, we will be able to hear her voice and songs live at the festival of Folkové prázdniny (Folk Holidays) in Náměšt' nad Oslavou.
Your latest album is entitled The Capitalist Blues, but it’s far from being a pure blues style. What does “blues” mean to you as a genre and as a word?
In the context of my latest album, “blues” refers to the role of the African diaspora in American music. This music was born out of struggle and grief and today it is part of a certain social process. My album is definitely not formally a blues style; I used the term because of the sentimentality it reflects.
You see, and I’ve been told by several blues artists that they see blues as more of a happy, joyful style of music...
Yes, music can really bring out the joy in you despite all the hardships of life. Music is a natural pain killer. It’s something that helps us live our lives better, fight our battles, and of course experience our joys. You can’t separate these; all these emotions are of course related to the music.
Louisiana, where you live, is the cradle of many musical styles - blues, jazz, zydeco, Cajun and more. How do you work with this legacy in your work?
The city of New Orleans, and indeed all of Louisiana, are places where musical tradition breathes on you and where you can get a lot of inspiration for a very contemporary musical expression. Drawing on this rich tradition is still an important part of my musical journey. I try to listen carefully, and while I don’t find everything equally interesting, the Louisiana music life, even the current one, is really extremely inspiring to me. This has reflected in the album I mentioned above, where I try to combine different musical genres from Haiti and Louisiana. Each song is a small musical microcosm in itself.
You were recently guest playing on the album HaitiaNola by Lakou Mizik, a Haitian group that tried to show the similarities in the music of Haiti and Louisiana. Are these cultural traditions really that close?
Yes, the music of Haiti and that of Louisiana both really spring from the same source. There are very strong historical and cultural links between the two regions. For me personally, living in Louisiana helps me come to terms with my Haitian roots. Subsequently, I myself benefit from it and try to promote this shared history. And by knowing the history, I can learn more about the world we live in. This part of history has often been stigmatized in the past due to anti-black sentiments in society. And today I consider it perhaps my greatest task to create a space for free conversation on these topics. Actually, this is exactly what Lakou Mizik’s album is all about. Many artists have come together to show that Haitian music is an important part of Louisiana culture and that it should be discussed more. We should play this music more and we should try to understand it because it is part of our identity.
Let’s go back to your album The Capitalist Blues. We’ve already discussed the second part of the title, but what about the “capitalism” part?
I started writing the song Capitalist Blues at a time when I had been trying to express my frustration for a long time. Frustration with the pressure from the society around us to conform to its standards and be successful. And it was out of this constant pressure that this song was born. Eventually, I decided to name the whole album this way, because all the tracks I decided to include in it fit well under this collective “capitalist blues” title. All of them actually deal with this pressure from the setting around us. Society asks us to have more and more money, to accumulate more and more possessions, and to want more and more. I consider it a disease of this world. Wealthy corporations have money, and therefore they have power. Possession is intertwined with politics and those with money try to indoctrinate us and convince us that this is what happiness is. But that’s not true. Happiness goes hand in hand with security and our society today is not secure. Depression and sadness arise from the desire for more and more things. Unfortunately, Western society is based on these principles - to have more and more property, to be the most successful, the most powerful... To exploit others to make us better off. The whole glorious “American Dream” is a delusion. They say that if you work hard, you will achieve your goals. But those who benefit from all this are not those who work. So, I sing about that kind of capitalism in my songs, and I wanted to share that with people.
This album of yours was created during the administration of President Donald Trump. I assume you’re not a fan of his. But how do you see the current Joe Biden era?
You know, life during the Trump administration was extremely exhausting. Virtually every day there was new shocking information in the news, and we were afraid of what the president would do next. People were tired of it, but at the same time a number of important movements in society were growing back then. The sad thing about today’s situation is that people are comforted by the fact that someone else is in the presidency and no longer feel such a need to talk and think about how to improve the world. I’m not any big fan of Biden, nor am I a big critic of him. But I have a feeling that even the current administration fails at supporting efforts to eliminate all injustices. We are therefore living in a strange time, when, moreover, a pandemic is underway. The inequalities in society are obvious - who has access to vaccines and who does not, for example, and so on. I am afraid, however, that people are not asking these questions so much nowadays because they have lost the common enemy against whom they used to define themselves.
A few days ago, the President of Haiti was assassinated. How do you see the situation there?
Haitians are experiencing really sad times. They have no political leader to fall back on. This, of course, is related to the long-standing instability that the West has helped create in Haiti since the early days of this black republic, one of the oldest in the world. Haiti has no leader, no strong parliament, no respected constitution. This is just another example of the failure of capitalism. It is one of the greatest disasters humans could have brought upon themselves. Even the earthquake in Haiti was so devastating because people failed to build a stable infrastructure. The United States is watching all this from a position of strength, and the Haitians realise that they are trapped. They live in a class-divided society in which a few wealthy families control the rest. Not that this is not the case in the United States, but in Haiti it is linked to a worse economic situation. So yes, this is an extremely sad time for Haiti. So, I too feel sadness and frustration.
You are known as a singer, but also as a cellist. However, on The Capitalist Blues you put down the cello and accompany yourself on electric guitar and banjo. What do you plan to do next?
I want to keep trusting my instincts. It’s not like I would tell myself in advance “I won’t play cello anymore”. I’m just trying to understand what the song requires and go with that. But I have to say that during the pandemic I was working on a new album and I’m playing cello on it again.
Do you know already what the album will be called?
Yes, I think I have a name. The album will be entitled Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever, as will the theatrical play I’ve been working on for the last few years. These days I’m signing with a major independent label. So I’m glad that I managed to come up with something really new during the pandemic.