What do you get when you cross the words of Langston Hughes, moody Creole cello melodies, and the New Orleans-Haiti connection? In Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes, Layla McCalla puts music to the Langston Hughes’s poems that first inspired her to take up the cello while growing up in New York and Jersey.
Who is Layla McCalla? She is to the Cello as the fiddle is to the violin.
The daughter of Haitian immigrants, Layla McCalla made her way to New Orleans in 2010. In the Crescent City she busked by playing Baroque pieces (on Royal Street, across from the most Baroque police station in America). Just as Hughes himself found vast inspiration in his short visit to Haiti, in her own travels to Hispaniola, Layla McCalla distinguished herself from her classical training and began work on the the folk sound that won her the London Sunday Times award for best new album of 2016, as well as many more accolades.
The album, Vari-Colored Songs, feels like a world onto itself in an era where music emulates cinema more often than literature, like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. What is most striking about her first album is the way she uses Hughes’s words as scaffolding to construct her musical cathedral to his legacy, very much a labor of love.
Since she was a girl, Layla McCalla has reworked her muse’s words into music. Hughes’s poetry shaping her identity as an artist as much as she ever shaped his poems with notes and rests–Vari-Colored Songs is not a millennial reboot of Hughes; instead, Layla McCalla brings Hughes’s lyrical lines to life. Every song comes off as authentic, as though they were somewhere in the poems all along, the way Michelangelo claimed his sculptures were already inside the granite blocks before he ever touched them.
Langston Hughes rows a boat, courtesy of the Langston Hughes estate
Of course, the very musical nature of Hughes’s works remains a source of bitter controversy as well as praise–the poet has been criticized of playing into the tradition of Black Minstrelsy–as Cary D. Wintz and Paul Finkelman write in their Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance: K-Y–Hughes actually stopped reciting his folksier poems to black audiences altogether by 1940. Really, the lyrical tradition Hughes mastered has as much in common with European literary tradition as with minstrelsy. Hughes owned his minstrel persona the way Layla McCalla owns her Haitian heritage in the folk songs she also transcribed into Vari-Colored Songs, much like Hughes who recorded folk songs on his 1932 trip to Haiti.
Layla McCalla’s second release, A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey, takes its name from the book by ethnomusicologist Gage Averill, an exploration of music’s influence on Haiti’s politics. The second album dropped in March, 2016, so she is currently on tour in the U.S.
Far from rolling in his grave, Hughes is most likely dancing thanks to Layla McCalla’s heartfelt tribute, despite the fact that his ashes were in fact interred under the New Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (Harlem, New York). I guess it is the thought that counts.
Featured image courtesy of Gambit’s Best of New Orleans.