Former Carolina Chocolate Drops cellist Leyla McCalla is set to have a busy year in 2019. As well as releasing her third solo album The Capitalist Blues, she will soon also be heard on the ‘Our Native Daughters’ project with former bandmate Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and Allison Russell. Until then we can treat ourselves to this excellent solo album – a rich exploration of McCalla’s musical heritage, with a socially conscious heart.
The album was produced by Jimmy Horn and features a number of musicians from Louisiana and Haiti, helping to create a melting pot of sounds that reflect both the island where her parents come from and New Orleans, the city she has made her home.
McCalla channels the blues spirit in the title track and on ‘Money is Power’. Both have an infectious rhythm, reinventing vintage jazz and blues music in a way that feels fresh. Her main concern is simple: how should you navigate a world that cares more about money than art? McCalla rejects the ‘sharks’ around her and the corporate ladder but they still leave her feeling the blues. And she sees what happens in an unequal society: if you have money you can get away with anything, become anyone (even the president). The poor are treated worse than dogs. So it goes, I guess. All that’s left to do is sing the blues.
McCalla also sings in Creole, celebrating the importance of the language to her identity. Lavi Vye Neg sounds wonderful and Mize Pa Dous is a wistful ballad, with rootsy guitars that wouldn’t be out of place in country music (all these roots genres are connected). Penha combines languages, turning a prayer into a song.
The hand-made cover art tells us that this will also be an album about motherhood and the impact of that role on women’s lives. On the devastating and personal Heavy As Lead, McCalla sings about her child, one of many innocent victims of lead poisoning due to poor water supplies. As a mother there’s so many things out of your control – you can only do your best but sometimes that’s just not enough to prevent suffering. The shocking environmental problems faced by families across America weighs on her soul, and is conveyed in this strikingly powerful song.
Me and My Baby and Oh My Love lighten the mood, both songs just make you wish you were in a bar in New Orleans with a cocktail and not a care in the world. Ain’t No Use is an end of the evening ballad, where you spill out of said bar onto the streets and watch the moon as the strings gently weep behind you. Settle Down plays the album out, a song of defiance and protest, with a restless rhythm created by Haitian band Lakou Mizik.
Like Hurray For the Riff Raff before her, McCalla has embraced her myriad musical influences and created a vibrant and vital album which reflects the diverse, and sometimes dark, world we live in now.