Singer-songwriter-string performer Leyla McCalla began to recognize similarities between the culture and politics of the New Orleans and her parents’ native Haiti after moving in 2010. The former member of Grammy-winning string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, brings Creole, Cajun, Haitian, American folk and jazz inspirations to her new album, “A Day For the Hunter, A Day For the Prey."
The solo album, due out late May from Jazz Village/Harmonia Mundi, takes its name from a Haitian proverb about the cyclical struggle of life and the social food chain. She discusses the full-length record's inspiration, her life in New Orleans and her daughter's influence over the phone from her Crescent City home.
Why did you decide to move to New Orleans?
I felt an opportunity to step further into my creativity and not just be living to pay my rent. There’s music everywhere. I learned so much about Cajun and old-time and Creole music. I learned how to Lindy hop and two-step. There’s a joie de vivre here that I wanted to be a part of. Plus, I love the weather. I seriously thought if I had to live through another New York winter I would jump off a bridge. Maybe it’s my Caribbean roots; I just want to be in the sun.
Drawing on songs from so many different traditions, what ideas did you want to communicate through this album?
Moving to New Orleans signaled reaching further into my heritage and finding the music there. I felt a real connection between the city and the Caribbean, from the architecture to the food to the way people are. A few years ago I read this book about the intersections of music and power and politics in Haiti called “A Day For the Hunter, A Day For the Prey,” and that proverb felt like a powerful umbrella for all of these things that had been turning in my mind about the state of the world, history, culture and music.
What does that proverb mean to you?
On one level I feel like we’re living in a man-eat-man world. I’ve felt that in an internal sense but also in trying to understand the cosmic justice system. There are so many inequalities and social issues that we keep on running up against. So that phrase rings true on a day-to-day level but also in a more holistic sense.
You read that book while pregnant with your first daughter, who is now 19 months old. How did impending motherhood influence this album?
The book talks about a tradition of songs borne out of the Haitian refugee crisis. I couldn't imagine what it would be like to have to make that decision to put your family in a boat. That survival instinct definitely kicked in for me and forced me to reckon with some of my own demons and identity issues. Some things hit me in the gut in a way they didn't before, when I was just a single young woman.
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What has the experience of motherhood been like?
It’s been everything – it’s been up, it’s been down, it’s been exhilarating, it’s been terrifying, it’s been really sweet. Her personality is really coming out now, so she’s not just a baby blob anymore. It’s been interesting to watch her become this little person.
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