Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes
Leyla McCalla sounds like an emissary from an alternate history. Even when her music is familiar in its chord progressions or melody, she’s prone to using her cello to send her sounds for a spin cycle in the Twilight Zone. On the track “When I Can See the Valley,” McCalla sings a comfortable melody, its contours utterly predictable, but she doesn’t settle for accompaniment that’s equally expected. Instead, her cello—the only instrument on the track—repeats an off-kilter, jagged melody that constantly sounds ready to tip over. The two meet like particles in a collider, bringing exotic elements to life.
McCalla is a New Yorker of Haitian descent who now resides in New Orleans, and that sweaty musical cauldron of a city seems like the perfect setting for her otherwordly take on folk traditions. The album progresses to songs employing a full band, and with that addition, a little of McCalla’s highly personal brand of magic fades. Even so, her full-band songs are plenty inventive and rewarding. The tunes are settings of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes’ words, Haitian folk songs, and originals. The three mix well, and the album feels coherent despite its disparate influences. Hughes’ words prove particularly amenable to musical treatment. Vari-Colored Songs seems at once old and new, and McCalla’s debut stakes out the parameters of a musical voice that’s weirder than the folk that spawned it, but still accessible and wildly appealing.