November 3rd, 2014
Artist: Layla McCalla
Label: Music Maker Foundation
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: February 4, 2014
Leyla McCalla’s debut album, Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes, is an ambitious setting of Langston Hughes’s poetry to old-time and blues arrangements. Released in February and funded via Kickstarter, this collection of songs speaks to multiple diasporas within the Black Atlantic. McCalla has been inspired by the poetry of Langston Hughes since her youth, and also deeply moved by her own Haitian heritage. In addition to the Langston Hughes poems set to music, this album also contains several traditional Haitian songs arranged and sung in Haitian Creole by McCalla, such as “Mesi Bondye.”
McCalla wears many hats on Vari-Colored Songs, playing banjo, cello, guitar, and providing vocals. She showcases her arrangement and composition skills as well. Several tracks also feature members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, with whom McCalla previously toured and recorded. Hubby Jenkins plays bones on “Latibonit,” and Rhiannon Giddens contributes vocals and shaker on several songs, including “Rose Marie” and “Manman Mwen.”
The strength of this album lies in the textural transparency of its arrangements combined with McCalla’s clear vocals, which allow the words of Langston Hughes to shine through. Be it the sorrowful “Song for a Dark Girl” or the contemplative “Heart of Gold,” McCalla’s treatments of Hughes’s poems are remarkable. The Haitian songs are similarly arranged, featuring a layering of banjo, steel pedal, and vocals. The liner notes include translations and, when applicable, histories of some songs, such as “Kamèn S W Fè?,” which is based on an arrangement by Ago Fixè recorded by folklorist Alan Lomax.
Although this album is subtitled “A Tribute to Langston Hughes,” it is much more. Simple yet complex, Leyla McCalla’s combination of old-time, blues, and Haitian folk music makes for an impressive debut.
Reviewed by Allie Martin