“I don’t think I’d be here doing what I’m doing if I hadn’t left New York,” expat Leyla McCalla said early in her set Thursday night at Lincoln Center. She related how a passerby who saw her in her busker days here – playing Bach on cello – told her she’d make more money playing oldtimey swing on banjo. The rest is history.
The insightful, articulate former Carolina Chocolate Drop began the night solo on electric guitar with a spare prayer for peace that alternated between English and Kreyol. Joined by Dave Hammer on guitar, Pete Olynciw on bass and Shawn Myers on drums, she switched to that banjo and led the quartet through Capitalist Blues, the slowly swinging, gloomily aphoristic title track to her new album.
McCalla went back to Kreyol for a pulsing, bolero-tinged Haiting harvest celebration number from the 1950s, Hammer adding calypso flair. She engaged the crowd with a bitingly minor-key, coyly metaphorical, bouncy Haitian troubadour song, Hammer adding jagged menace with a modal solo.
Switching to cello, McCalla explained how traditional music engages her imagination, prefacing a brooding old Cajun song whose chorus translates as “Where has the little girl gone?” To her, the implication was slavery: the band’s combination of two low-stringed instruments magnified the sense of loss and distant horror.
From there she went into oldtime gospel, then “Switched gears pretty significantly,” she said, picking up her guitar and making her way astringently into Aleppo, a grim minor-key blues inspired by real-time social media updates from that doomed city. “Bombs are falling in the name of peace…do we care at all?” she asked calmly. Hammer capped it off with volleys of string-torturing tremolo-picking.
He played slide on the balmy Kreyol nocturne that followed. The slow oldschool soul ballad Heavy As Lead, McCalla explained, was inspired by physician Mona Hanna-Attisha’s book What The Eyes Don’t See, her memoir of the Flint water crisis and how the government agencies involved tried to “maintain the status quo.” That issue has special resonance for McCalla, considering that her daughter had a brush with lead poisoning.
A biting, psychedelically merengue-flavored tune about an aging Haitian struggler – featuring a long, boomy drum break – was next, followed by a sarcastic banjo-driven cha-cha on the same theme. “The root of all evil makes good material for songwriting,” McCalla demurred.
She spoke to the “role of black women in the United States as initiators of social change,” inspiring her participation in the all-female, banjo-centric Songs of Our Native Daughters project with Rhiannon Giddens, then led the band through a moodily resonant take of nonagenarian banjo player Ella Jenkins’ Little Sparrow. She closed the set with the spare, rhythmic Day For the Hunter, Day For the Prey, which she wrote about the 1980s Haitian immigrant crisis, although it transcends those specifics.
McCalla’s next show that’s not sold out is on her current home turf at the New Orleans fairgrounds on May 3. The next free concert at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is on April 18 at 7:30 PM with the Castalian String Quartet playing works by Britten and Schubert.