If you needed a reminder of how big the world really is—and, these days, who doesn’t—you’ll find it in Leyla McCalla. Born in New York to Haitian parents, she was cellist for the Carolina Chocolate Drops and, more recently, joined with Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and Allison Russell to form Our Native Daughters. Those projects were all born of a desire to make great music while bringing attention to aspects of North American musical culture that had gone unnoticed. They succeeded and then some.
Along the way McCalla found time to record “Vari-Colored Songs,” re-released this year by Smithsonian Folkways. Over the course of 15 tracks it surveys the broad cultural landscape that McCalla embodies, ranging from Haitian folksongs, to social activism, to simply being a citizen of the world. Inspired by Langston Hughes—it features his poetry and Kurt Weill’s setting of his “Lonely House,” a pandemic anthem if ever there was one—the album has found its true moment. Says McCalla in a recent interview, “watching the public discourse really shift about racism and race relations have strengthened my resolve,” to speak “to the heart of these issues in a very graceful way.” And she does.