This reissue of the debut solo album from Leyla McCalla, a former member of The Carolina Chocolate Drops and one quarter of the award winning Songs Of Our Native Daughters, serves to remind us that McCalla is a powerful force in her own right and that she has been at the forefront of reclaiming Black culture for several years now, along with her former band mate, Rhiannon Giddens. Subtitled “A Tribute To Langston Hughes,” the album features McCalla setting several of the Harlem Renaissance poet’s poems to song but she also brings in songs celebrating her Haitian heritage and follows the immigrant trail from Haiti to New Orleans.
While it was the banjo which was at the forefront for all four participants on Songs Of our Native Daughters, here, McCalla uses her primary instrument. the cello (on which she was classically trained) on several of the songs. However, much of the thrust is similar in that the songs are quite bare boned with minimal instrumentation allowing the vocals to really engage. At times McCalla reminds one of the late Karen Dalton, a singer who always had a bluesy and bruised relation to her songs and the wonderful and woody timbre of her cello, sometimes offset by gliding pedal steel, allows the album a timeless feeling.
That cello and steel guitar combination dominate the excellent opening song, Heart Of Gold and it’s a perfect introduction as McCalla extracts words from the Hughes’ poem which gave her the album title as she evokes the traditional need to move on from racist climes to better pastures. Her own song, When Can I See The Valley, is something of a riposte as she reckons that those better pastures might be on the other side of life. There’s an undeniable power in the words of Hughes, and McCalla highlights this on the tenebrous threnody of Girl and on the stark evocation of a lynching on Song For A Dark Girl, a song which rivals Strange Fruit. However, away from this darkness, Too Blue is a given a fine old time string band arrangement which somewhat disguises the sheer hopelessness of the protagonist.
Hughes visited Haiti and McCalla ponders on whether he heard some of the songs she has reclaimed here. A chance encounter with an album of Haitian folk songs ignited a desire to add these to the album and so we have the wonderful Creole version of Mamman Mwen (with Rhiannon Giddens harmonising) and the excellent Mesi Bondye which is French chanson married to a Caribbean delight. Compounding this connection, Kamen Sa w Fe? , based on an Alan Lomax recording in 1937 of a Haitian musician, Ago Fixe, aches with the emotional power of Piaf in her prime. No slouch in her own writing, McCalla closes the album with a song which we presume alludes to the flooding of New Orleans on Changing Tide. Despite this tragedy, there is a sense of optimism and rebirth.
Vari-Colored Songs was highly praised on its release back in 2014 with several publications nominating it for album of the year. It’s timely reissue on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings (and nicely annotated in the liner notes) is to be welcomed in these turbulent times.