The route that cellist Leyla McCalla traveled to become a regular touring member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops has been both serendipitous and circuitous. McCalla, a multi-instrumentalist who has studied cello since she was a child, was born in New York City to Haitian emigrant parents and raised in suburban New Jersey. As a teenager, she spent two years in Ghana; back in the states, she briefly enrolled at Smith College in Massachusetts before deciding to return to New York City to major in cello performance and chamber music at New York University.
After graduating from NYU, McCalla taught in New York City public schools under the auspices of the Noel Pointer Foundation, a music-education nonprofit. She backed Mos Def at Carnegie Hall during the JVC Jazz Festival in 2008 as part of a big-band concert that featured a guest turn from poet and hip-hop progenitor Gil Scott Heron. With guitarist Deborah C. Smith, she co-founded Medicine Woman, an acoustic trio that drew inspiration from traditional music – American, African, Celtic, Latin American – and explored blues, folk, funk and jazz. Their neo-soul-inflected, groove-based sound won them a fervent local following.
Despite the strides she’d made as an artist and working musician over the six years she spent in New York City following college, McCalla decided to
move to New Orleans in 2010, eager to explore folk music in a more unadulterated form. That decision, she says, “gave a new lease on life to my creative soul.” McCalla performed in the French Quarter, on the streets and in the clubs, also backing musicians like banjo virtuoso Morgan O’Kane. While playing on the street, McCalla met Carolina Chocolate Drops manager Tim Duffy, who invited her to work with his North Carolina-based Music Maker Relief Foundation, which preserves the legacy of often-neglected elder traditional artists and encourages young musicians as part of its Next Generation program. Taj Mahal and the Carolina Chocolate Drops would soon count themselves among McCalla’s supporters. When CCD was preparing to record its second Nonesuch album, *Leaving Eden*, the group invited her to rehearse and record with them in Nashville, giving her pride of place on the album’s evocative title track.
McCalla is now a full-time touring member of Carolina Chocolate Drops and continues to develop a solo career. As part of her own repertoire, she has been exploring the folk music of her Haitian heritage and continues to work on a longstanding labor of love, setting to music the words of American poet Langston Hughes.