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Leyla McCalla's Capitalist Blues

By Alison Hird

For her third album The Capitalist Blues, Haitian American singer and multi-instrumentalist Leyla McCalla questions the race to get ahead, and sings for the people left behind. "It’s hard to call a revolution when you’ve got the blues," she says, "but change is needed".

McCalla is the daughter of Haitian rights activists who emigrated to the US in the sixties. So it comes as little surprise she uses her music to draw attention to life’s injustices, such as the growing gap between rich and poor, not least in the US.

She delivers the song Money is King with her customary finesse on banjo. Written by Trinidadian singer Neville Marcano aka the Growling Tiger in 1935, she feels it’s as relevant as ever.

“I remember the first time I ever heard that song I wanted to sing it because it’s so straight to the point and so clever,” says McCalla “so cleverly executed, which is part of the Calypso tradition.

“It’s kind of talking about social issues in a clever and nuanced way, with a satirical kind of slant, but that [song] feels like it applies particularly to the world today.

“There’s so much poverty in the world yet so much wealth, I feel the disparity between those two realities is greater and greater.”

When singing those words she says she’s also thinking about friends who went to college, have degrees, masters, Phd’s and are still unemployed.

“There’s a lot of people who feel constantly left behind and you know that doesn't come from nothing, that comes from the system we live in.”

Refusing to 'Settle Down'

McCalla often sings in Haitian creole, the “language of resistance” and includes some creole in the song Settle Down, a rousing polyrhythmic parade, recorded with the music collective Lakou Mizik from Haiti.

“They began as a rara band,” she says, "rara is a Haitian type of carnival music but which is also inherently protest music. The idea is to stir up a sense of solidarity.”

When she sings 'there is no price for your soul' it means "no one can buy your spirit, no one can buy your inherent gifts, your inherent value is limitless".

McCalla describes it as a song against being “anti-protest”, a sort of tribute to all the militants on the ground. It was inspired by hearing how people demonstrating against Donald Trump's inauguration were dealt with.

“I was listening to the radio and they were talking about the Trump inauguration and all these protestors who were arrested were facing ridiculous sentences, like 60 years in jail, for protesting Trump.

"And they were talking about implementing new, anti-protest legislation in the Senate. I thought to myself 'they just want us all to settle down and take our place'. And that’s not what this country is about.”

Leyla McCalla with her trusty banjo ©Greg Miles

Left alone to deal with lead poisoning

The song Heavy as Lead was based on an experience much closer to home when she and her husband discovered their one old daughter had high levels of lead poisoning from the paint on their house in New Orleans. They were able to sort things out, unlike many poorer families.

“The song fell on my head and I wrote it thinking about families and parents in Flint, Michigan, and in places where it’s a systemic issue all over the United States. The more I’ve talked about it the more people have come forward and said ‘we have this issue as well’.

“So why is it just on the parents’ shoulders to solve this? Why is it treated as a case by case basis? I feel in general that we put so many resources into our military, into our international security, but we don’t actually foster national security or wellness for everybody.”

McCalla has become more militant since becoming mother to three young children.

“No one can placate when your child is in danger, you have to rise up and face it.”

Leyla McCalla in concert at La Cigale, Paris, 27 March 2019.

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