Born in Queens, Leyla McCalla took to the cello at a young age, a journey that has led her from classical stages to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and to the APAP stage at City Winery. Theese non-traditional cello techniques helped to form the sounds on 'Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes' (February 4 / Music Maker Relief Foundation), her solo debut. After classical training initially, a physical detour led her to reconsider. She recalls, "I was serious about classical music and my family moved to Africa when I was in high school."
McCalla is taping four syndicated radio shows in the next few weeks,
including NPR. Listen to a stream of 'Vari-Colored Songs' at Paste
She prepared pieces such as the Bach suites and the Saint-Saens Concerto
for an audition for the NYU music program after her transfer. "I saw
the cellist Rufus Cappadocia in a band outside of school. He was playing
five-string electric cello with a Haitian roots band. His playing just
blew me away: slapping, plucking, using all these different techniques."
She began meeting with him and he expanded her horizons of what a cello
could sound like and what kind of music it could play.
She studied classical techniques at NYU but outside of school, she was a
waitress at world music and jazz venue Zebulon. She says, "I met all
these musicians and was playing in different bands. There were epic jam
sessions at Rufus' house and I got new ideas about rhythm, groove, and
When I moved to New Orleans, I started playing a lot more. I memorize
the first four suites of the Bach repertoire and played on the street. I
sat in with trad jazz bands, started playing old-time music and Cajun
music. The line through it all is playing by ear. It's intuitive and in
my body," she says.
'Vari-Colored Songs' finds her strumming, plucking, and fingerpicking as
well as bowing the cello and playing the tenor banjo. Of her
songwriting says, "A lot these songs were not made up of conscious
decisions. On 'Heart of Gold,' I heard the poem in 5:4 time and the
melody that way. It just happened and felt right."