WhatsUp Interview: Leyla MCalla Playing PVD Fest Saturday

Acclaimed Roots Artist Formerly Played With Carolina Chocolate Drops

Leyla McCalla

A wide-ranging and eclectic variety of acts will take to the many stages of the PVD Festival this weekend at locations all over downtown Providence. FirstWorks, one of the state’s leading arts organizations, is sponsoring several artists, one of those being New York native and New Orleans transplant, Leyla McCalla. 

McCalla, who formerly played cello with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, merges traditional Creole, Cajun and Haitian music, as well as American jazz and folk. We spoke to McCalla earlier this week as she and her band were preparing for a show in Vermont. She’s especially excited to be playing the Festival.

“The last couple of times I’ve been in Providence I’ve played at the Columbus Theatre and I really like the folks there. I’m always kind of surprised meeting people that live in the Haitian community in Providence because I don’t usually think of it as a place that has a large Haitian diaspora. It’s always been really cool to have people come to the shows, and come back. I recognize them, and the people are excited about the music. There’s a genuine enthusiasm with what I’m doing.”

We wondered how the festival experience is different from a regular performance. McCalla explained…

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“This is a festival that is free and open to the public and honestly those are my favorite gigs to play because people aren’t necessarily looking for you, but they’re open to experiencing something new. It’s always a great equalizer when people have not paid … you’re there and it’s the rawest form of connection… and all people are standing. I definitely want to get people dancing.”

Capitalist Blues

Earlier this year, McCalla released her third solo album, Capitalist Blues. She offered some background on the inspiration for the album.

“My music and my mission have a very strong social message that is always front and center for me. I started writing that song (“Capitalist Blues”) years ago and I didn’t finish it till I realized that this collection of material was about capitalism and the ways that it feels stifling. It creates this inequality that never has a solution. The album is reflective of some of those thoughts; it’s not necessarily an anti-capitalist album – philosophically, yes, I’m anti-capitalist – but I’m living in a capitalist society, so I’m more asking questions like ‘is it possible for us to be anti-capitalist while living in a capitalist society?’ I’m not sure there’s an answer to that, but I try to talk about it through the songs.

“A lot of the album is through the lens of someone who’s been living in New Orleans. It’s a very New Orleans sounding album – one of the songs is an R&B tune, another starts out with this big brass band, with more of a trad jazz blues feel. It still connects to my Haitianess and singing Creole and a lot of the things that are really important to me, that are part of my creative life. These things that I feel needed further exploration because of whatever identity issues I’ve had growing up as a Black Hattian-American girl in the United States. There’s a lot of layers there, but it feels like me.”

Be sure to check out Layla McCalla Saturday at 5:45 at the Mural Stage, 120 Mathewson Street. She’ll be back in RI at the Newport Folk Festival in July performing with Our Native Daughters, her critically acclaimed roots project with Rhiannon Giddens, Amathyst Kiah, and Allison Russell. We’ll have more on how that project came about in another story next month.

More Festival Highlights

Additional highlights at the PVD Festival include eVenti Verticali , known as Italy’s Vertical Theater, where dancers perform on a stage suspended high in the air from a construction crane. 

Also, don’t miss famed costume designer, Machine Dazzle, who will lead a workshop for budding designers in developing a glam look for the PVDFest Parade. Known for outrageous looks on Broadway and the runway, Machine most recently dressed top model Cara Delevingne and designer Diane Von Furstenberg for the Met Gala.

Another highlight will certainly be Africa’s first female kora virtuoso, Sona Jobarteh, a modern-day pioneer in a musical tradition that has been handed down exclusively from father to son for the past seven centuries. Sona uses her innovative stance to talk about cultural identity, gender, love and respect while still rooting herself firmly in her traditional cultural heritage.

Check the complete schedule here for details.