SXSW Music Review: Leyla McCalla

Cultural folk chanteuse gives voice to the voiceless

Three songs, three different instruments, no shoes. Leyla McCalla demonstrated her earthy musical prowess on Friday night, but ultimately impressed as a voice for the voiceless.

Photo by Jana Birchum

The New York-raised, New Orleans-based cultural folk chanteuse lit out with Brazilian Tropicália offering “Penha,” a bended-knee plea for peace in one’s life and home. Plucking an electric guitar, McCalla alternated verses in Haitian Creole and English, her voice exceptionally natural and sincere. Picking up a tenor banjo, the onetime Carolina Chocolate Drops member soon dropped into the Dixieland jazz of recent title track “The Capitalist Blues,” in which guitarist Dave Hammer stole a captivating solo.

McCalla’s favored cello then emerged for a jaw-dropping folk dirge inspired by Langston Hughes’ poetry, in which she sings: “If I had a heart of gold/ As some folks I know/ I’d up and sell my heart of gold/ And move north with the dough.

“I’d like to devote the rest of the show to The Capitalist Blues,” she told the audience – somewhat ironically gathered in the so-called “Victorian Room” of the well-heeled Driskill Hotel. “We’re going to go to the darkest place and then find our way out.”

That album, released in January, subtly focuses on systemic issues like war and inequity. Her backing trio came alive during the hard-hitting “Aleppo,” about violence as daily life in the Middle East. She then brought us to Flint, Michigan, with the emotionally commanding “Heavy as Lead.”

Cooling down, McCalla hearkened back to her ancestral home of Haiti with “Mize Pa Dous,” employing the beauty and strength of her voice to be a messenger for the common people, the un-elites, the “folk.”

Leyla McCalla

Friday, March 15, 11pm, Driskill Victorian Room

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SXSW 2019, SXSW Music 2019, Leyla McCalla, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Langston Hughes, Dave Hammer

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