dimanche 6 novembre 2016

Interview with Leyla McCalla

(c) Sarrah Danziger

RG: How do you like being in France?
Leyla McCalla: I like it a lot. It's very different culturally than a lot of other places I get to travel to. I feel very well taken care of here. The social and political climate is a little bit intimidating here, globally too these days; it's a little bit heavy. But otherwise I like being here.

RG: There are a couple of French songs on the record. How close do you feel to French culture?
Leyla: I feel closer to the French language than I do to the French culture. Through colonization French has spread through parts of Africa, the West Indies and parts of the United States. And other places as well but those are the places where I’ve been and to where I feel connected. There is something about French that is really captivating, just sonically. To have grown up around a lot of people speaking Creole and to sort of connect with what the French language is and to what the Creole language is and why. It's very interesting to me as well.

RG: You were raised in the United States of Haïtian heritage. Listening to the record I feel as though you're constantly searching for your inner self. Was it hard to find a place to belong?
Leyla: In some ways yes. But in a lot of ways and in the way I live my life I've been following my intuition and my gut feeling that have kind of led me down a very unorthodox path. And I realize that my sense of home may not be because I am always on the go and I'm always searching and that's a part of being an artist and a touring musician. And now to be doing it with my family, I think it just changes my sense of what home is. Rather than being difficult to find a place to call home it was difficult to establish exactly what that meant to me.

RG: What is your definition of home?
Leyla: That is the hardest question on the interview (smile). I guess home is where you feel comfortable. Living the way I have been living and now raising a daughter and having my family on the road with me means that in my sense home is where I am. It's something I'm learning to establish wherever I happen to be. Not necessarily in one place. Because as soon as I start to get too comfortable in one place, it starts to get boring. But I think that home in general is a place where you can be yourself. 

RG: How did it feel when you went to New Orleans the very first time?
Leyla: I felt like it was a big tourist trap. I was very disenchanted, very disconnected. The second time I went I was committed to staying for a month. I was playing in the streets and I met these women in New York who invited me to play in New Orleans with them. I was with my bicycle and my cello and I felt the scent of freedom and magic. I fell in love with the city. I went back one more time and that is when I decided - I'm gonna move here. I wanna be in New Orleans, there is something there that is really calling me. A part of that was the music. It was such a contrast from how I had been living in New York. To be self-sustaining as a musician had been one of my goals for a long time. I felt like it was actually possible in New Orleans. In New York it was like a battle. I felt like I had to do a lot of other jobs in order to continue to afford to play music. And that felt very unbalanced to me. I've had a lot of different feelings about the city especially since it changed so much since I moved there in 2010. Gentrification.

(c) Sarrah Danziger

RG: What comparison would you draw between New Orleans and your Haïtian heritage?
Leyla: Haïti and the Haïtian revolution had a big influence on New Orleans culture and also political power in the West Indies, the United States and Europe. That is why I do my work to try to understand why that goes unrecognized. New Orleans has inherited a lot of things in terms of the language and the food: the spices, the rice, the cooking techniques. I'm sure Haïtian music had a big influence on the creation of jazz. The movement of the banjo from the West Indies to United States is an example. We like to say New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz but we don't ask ourselves, what is jazz? Where did that come from and what does it mean?. I think we like to think about history in a tunnel vision kind of way. When really there are a lot of different factors that come together in order to create change, to create culture. I feel New Orleans is a big example of the effect Haïti had on global history.

RG: How did you fit into the local scene?
Leyla: In some ways I fit in very well and in some ways I didn’t. I was a classical cellist and I was making a living playing classical music on the streets when I first lived there. I wasn't totally in the jazz scene. I fit in because there are so many people passionate about music and in New Orleans, music is a part of every gathering, every party, every show. Everything. There is always music around. I think that is something I wanted my whole life.

RG: There are a few traditional songs on the album. Are roots important to you?
Leyla: Yes.

RG: I think of it as some form of soul searching…
Leyla: It's a little bit of both. It's a little bit about looking back and kind of understanding heritage and roots, history and the origin of things. And in another way it's very much trying to understand my place and my role in it all.

RG: The album title « A day for the hunter a day for the prey » is coming from an Haitian proverb...
Leyla: It means a lot of different things to me. In one way you can hear it as every dog has it's day. In another way it's a day for the oppressor and a day for the oppressed. That felt more in line with what we're seeing in the world today and a lot of things happening in history. That title came from a book that I've read about music and power in politics in Haïti throughout the twentieth century. The book is about the coup d'état and troubles in Haïti where reflected in music and how music was used as a tool for a political party’s propoganda. On top of that there are issues about immigration, refugees, prisoners, people fleeing violence or persecution. That title came from all the research I did about Louisiana, Haïti, the United States and France and the intersection between all those places. The title became the umbrella for this album. All things fit with this title. It made sense with that feeling of helplessness or hopelessness. There is a lot of dichotomy in that title. I found it very interesting.

RG: This all seems very heavy but on the other hand the music itself is uplifting…
Leyla : Music is a such a great tool to be uplifted by. Spiritually. That's what I am doing with my music and hopefully that's what people are feeling while listening to it.

RG: In my opinion, there is a sort of timelessness quality to this album. How do you bring a fresh look to the traditional songs?
Leyla: I have fresh eyes (laughs)! Some of the traditional songs were written sometimes decades before I was even born. I was a teenager in the nineties and I graduated from College almost ten years ago now. I'm pretty young compared to a lot of these songs. And the world and my experience is very different than the world that shaped those songs. When you put those things together it's inevitable that something different and new is going to happen. Also I play the cello so everything is designed with my « cello mind ». My arrangements are designed with that in mind all the time too. I don't know how I do it. I am amazed (laughs).

(c) Sarrah Danziger

RG: That is where the magic lies…
Leyla (laughs): I really care about the music and how it's presented in the way that people can receive it. What is the best way to present this song? That is really what I am thinking about the whole time.

RG: We're going through some dark times right now and the world is a pretty violent place. Do you think music can bring healing in some way?
Leyla: I think music has an important role, certainly, in society right now. And there is definitely a lot of healing to do. I'm not sure about curing though, because even the music industry is completely sick you know (laughs). To me, having business be around music sounds like a spiritual paradox. That is not what my music is about but I need to eat and pay for my mortgage. I am pretty sure that is not what your question is about but I kind of feel that there is this capitalism underneath everything and then you have to create more and do more. It's always more, more, more and there is nothing that is ever enough - especially in American culture. Maybe it's different in France, or maybe not. I see the same things walking down the boulevard, it's all big brand names and everything is on sale. We've had to get rid of our stock in order to get more stuff. How do you create healing in a society that is so intend on consumption. I think that what I am interested in is creating something that is consumable as an emotional and spiritual tool. Maybe my label and people around me are like: « You've got to become a star and do this and that so we can make a lot of money ». I think that is clearly not what it's all about. So there is a bit of a conflict there, for a musician. Even for me. It's not like I'm in big business like Madonna or something. I do wonder about it. I guess we all have choices and we can make good choices about how we produce and release our music. And things we talk about in our songs and that is what I am focused on. The positive choices I can make. Because it all feels very much like the world is waiting to swallow you whole and take everything they want from you and squeeze all the good out. Leave you mentally, physically and spiritually exhausted. And I think this is now the risk for a musician. How to regenerate oneself without breaking down.

RG: And you need that in order to create…
Leyla: Exactly. You have to create that for yourself in order to share it. You can't just only be relying on what people want you to do. It has to come from inside at some level. It will be interesting to see what will happen in the world. It is a really sad, sad moment in history. We were supposed to play the Nice jazz festival that was our first date on this tour. That was that morning right after the big tragedy in Nice. Some people were worried about us and showed some concern. What can I say about the people that were there? Clearly we need to be talking about these things more and this is why I do the music that I do. I believe that things can be better. But it takes more than writing a few songs. You can change people's hearts. We need our politicians, and people who are representing us and making decisions to be interested in inspiring people and changing their hearts. It can't be just musicians alone.
Interview 22nd July 2016.
Many thanks to Angela Randall !!!!

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