Music: Southward bound to Eilat

Layla McCalla will front a trio that includes her husband, guitarist and five-string banjo player Dan Tremblay and viola player Bria “Free” Bonne.

Leyla McCalla and her cello. (photo credit: CHRIS COLBOURN)
Leyla McCalla and her cello.
(photo credit: CHRIS COLBOURN)
There are some who believe that jazz emanates exclusively from the African-American community. But there others who feel that the music is a result of the synthesis of all the sounds and cultures that populated the genre’s birthplace, New Orleans, around a century ago.
Presumably, New Orleans resident Leyla McCalla would have no problem with the latter theory and clearly has several cultural strands to her instrumental and vocal output. All of that will be on show when McCalla takes the stage at this year’s Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat on August 24 and 25.
McCalla will front a trio that includes her husband, guitarist and five-string banjo player Dan Tremblay and viola player Bria “Free” Bonnet. McCalla will alternate between guitar, cello and banjo, and vocals.
Although born in New York, McCalla hails from a Haitian family and has been feeding off those, and other, roots for some years now.
“I listened to people like Paul Simon and James Taylor, and Crosby, Still, Nash & Young, and the stuff my parents used to listen to,” she recalls. “I think that was my introduction to folk music.”
There were plenty of other influences, including classical music, and the music her parents brought with them from Haiti. The French element from Haiti also naturally led McCalla in the direction of Louisiana Creole music.
McCalla started out on her instrumental path on piano, but by third grade she had transferred her attention to the cello. Mind you, it was not exactly an informed choice.
“I just decided I wanted to play the cello, even though I didn’t really know what a cello was,” she says. “I thought it was just a sort of piccolo. When my teacher handed me the cello, she said: ‘You’ve got long legs. You’ll be a good cellist.’” It turned out to be an inspired move. McCalla learned to play classical cello, went on to study chamber music at New York University and, to this day, enjoys performing works by Bach. But she also has her own individual way of playing the instrument, and often strums the strings rather than use a bow or pluck at the strings. That imbues the instrument with a guitar-like feel and texture.
McCalla also plays guitar and banjo, the latter choice resulting from her connection with her adopted home down south, as well as her parental past.
“For me the banjo is just so much part of the history of New Orleans and Haitian folk music, so it feels so appropriate to play it, and also to rearrange some traditional tunes and to play them on banjo.”
McCalla’s root-based artistic evolution includes a stint with the Carolina Chocolate Drops old-time string band from Durham, North Carolina. Their 2010 album, Genuine Negro Jig,  won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album.
But, while McCalla certainly bonds with the historical baggage that comes with her family, and with living in New Orleans, she is very much a part of the here and now.
“I don’t think I play the songs in any historically accurate way – I am a self-taught banjo player – but I am also very interested in diverse styles.”
For McCalla, music also offered a way of bringing her history lessons to life.
“I was interested in seeing what folk music meant, and how that is connected with the history, with the past.”
One of the figures of the more recent past who impacted significantly on McCalla’s personal and, eventually, musical development was poet Langston Hughes, a 20th century American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright and columnist from Joplin, Missouri, who died in 1967. Hughes came of mixed stock, which took in African-American antecedents, as well as white slave-traders, with some French, Native American, English and Jewish blood thrown in for good measure.
McCalla took an instant liking to Hughes’s poetry. “It was simple but also deep with great meaning,” she says. “My father gave me a book of Hughes’s poetry when I was six, but I’d started getting into it even before that.”
Hughes’s writings are also said to have a musical quality to them, and McCalla credits the late poet with pushing her along in the desired career direction.
“He was the first jazz poet,” she says, “and I think there’s also a lot of blues in there, too. And, you know, jazz and the blues are closely connected. Reading Hughes’s poetry made me want to be an artist.”
McCalla got around to offering her own salute to Hughes and his work last year with the release of Vari-Colored Songs , which includes adaptations of his poems, Haitian folk songs sung in Haitian Creole and original compositions.
“I think Langston Hughes’s poetry resonates with a lot of people. He has a way of talking about complex issues in a very simple way, which anyone can understand. His words are very powerful.”
The first Hughes work McCalla set to music was “Heart of Gold” – not to be confused with the Neil Young song of the same name – which is highly evocative of the Deep South. That will feature in McCalla’s two gigs in Eilat, along with other numbers from the album, some more traditional Creole material and new music she and the trio have been working on.
Considering the multiple strands of the cultural melting pot that run through New Orleans, McCalla appears to be a natural choice for the Eilat port jazz bash.
Elsewhere on the August 23-26 program, jazz fans can find some iconic figures of the fraternity, in the shape of 78-year-old bass player Ron Carter, 72-year-old drummer Jack DeJohnette and 62-year-old saxophonist Joe Lovano. The younger jazz and jazz-oriented crowd includes 30-year-old French singer Cyrille Aimée, while German-based Israeli pianist Omer Klein will team up with longtime sparring partner bassist Haggai Cohen-Milo and drummer Amir Bresler. The latter will also keep time for saxophonist Daniel Zamir, whose quartet also includes pianist Tomer Bar and bass player Gilad Abro, with pop star Eviatar Banai putting in a guest appearance.
As usual, there will be a generous helping of non-jazz shows at the festival, including The Touré-Raichel Collective quartet fronted by globally acclaimed Israeli world music pianist-vocalist Idan Raichel and Malian guitarist-vocalist Vieux Farke Touré and their Touré-Raichel Collective quartet. The four-day program will close with a show by ethnically inclined rocker guitarist-vocalist Berry Sakharof.
For tickets: *9080. For more information: