Vari-Colored Songs, by Leyla McCalla (Album of the Week)

Vari-Colored Songs is the best example of why I LOVE the fact that half the albums of our weekly series are chosen by Robin. I would never have chosen this album. Even if I had stumbled across it and listened to a few songs, I’m pretty sure I would not have given it a chance to win me over the way it has. Robin has great taste, though, and it is different enough from mine that it brings me places I would never go otherwise. I count myself lucky to have a partner in this project and in all others who helps me see and react to a broader world.

Why would I have been close-minded to this album if left to my own devices? Perhaps because the cynic in me struggles with the earnestness of a project like this. Leyla McCalla is a classically-trained cello player who tours with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. This album comes from a Kickstarter project in which she wrote: “What began several years ago as an inspired idea to set a Langston Hughes poem to music, has since flowered into a very personal exploration of African-American and Haitian history through song. Vari-Colored Songs is an album that has been waiting at least 5 years to be made! The moment is ripe and the momentum is strong!!!”

You’ve got to admit the cynical me has a point. Langston Hughes tends to bring out the worst in people, and a middle-aged white male Irish-Polish-American might not find much flowering in a “very personal exploration of African-American and Haitian history through song.” I mean, the cynical me has no problem at all with Leyla McCalla, born in New York to Haitian parents, doing personal exploration, but I’ll be just fine sticking to my own personal exploration through the Elders and maybe some Flogging Molly. I think there’s a bit of cultural segregationist in each of us at some level. Perhaps not, in which case there’s my confessional.

But Robin signed me up for this “very personal exploration,” like it or not, and sure enough, I wound up enthusiastic about stuff way outside my normal zone. This is a great album with arrangements that are so naked that it feels voyeuristic to listen in on them. She has a tremendous warm voice that she trusts to engage naturally – no histrionics or bogus vibrato. It is personal, as promised, but welcoming.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the album is how well the poetry of Langston Hughes adapts to song form. I have an almost unlistenable CD of WB Yeats’ poetry performed by the Waterboys (see, I told you about that Irish side of me!) where they approach the poems as something separate from themselves. They treat them reverently and, as a result, the album is not much more fun that a dusty seminar. In songs like Songs for a Dark Girl and Too Blue, though, Leyla McCalla just flat out inhabits the poems and makes them her own. Too Blue is downright funny – and McCalla was wise to perceive the humor in the poem and bring it out front and center.

TS Eliot, a fellow Missourian to Langston Hughes, wrote that “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” (Go read the article if you like that quotation – the author was annoyed by the frequent misquotation attributed to Picasso, and tracked down the truth.) I’m not sure that McCalla really makes Hughes different – I think she enhances him and makes us love his words on a different level.

There’s much more than Langston Hughes on this album – several Haitian folk songs and some great string music. They’re so enjoyable that my mind doesn’t even struggle to decipher the foreign language – I wind up just shutting that part of my brain down and enjoying the sound.

Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin is as pleased as I am with her choice, which she admits was a bit of a lark.

Next up: Stockholm, by Chrissie Hynde (We have a lot going on in the real world this week, and this album won’t be released till Tuesday, so we might wind up taking a week off. Or not. We’ll see!)

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