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REVIEW: Leyla McCalla and Melissa Laveaux at Cadogan Hall (2018 EFG LJF)

Leyla McCalla
Publicity picture

Leyla McCalla and Melissa Laveaux
(Cadogan Hall 20th November 2018. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Peter Slavid)

Leyla McCalla is an outstanding singer and multi-instrumentalist best known from her time with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, but now emerging as a superstar in her own right. The Chocolate Drops were definitely a folk band so you might ask what she’s doing at a jazz festival.  In fact of course the roots of American folk music and American jazz are inextricably intertwined through the African-American experience.

McCalla is a New York born Haitian-American who has recently been exploring her Haitian roots as well as the music of Louisiana where she now lives. Her music doesn’t fit neatly into any genre, but the New Orleans sound comes through strongly in this performance. Best known for her trademark cello sound (not an instrument common in any of the genres) she also plays a mean banjo, which is apparently important in Haitian as well as African-American music. She also plays guitar on some of the more overtly R&B numbers.

Many of the songs, whether in English or Creole, deal with social injustice. These include settings of Langston Hughes’ poems, and her own songs on both the personal and political including one on the ever topical plight of refugees trying to get to America.

Over the course of an hour the music ranged from the Latin sounding Haitian Twoubadou beats, to very New Orleans sounding blues, with echos of traditional jazz. Supported by a fine band of guitar, bass and drums, much of the music will be found on her forthcoming album, which will undoubtedly be snapped up when it’s available.

The concert opened with Mélissa Laveaux, a Canadian singer-songwriter and guitarist also of Haitian descent who has recently been back to Haiti to explore her roots. With her own guitar, plus bass and drums, this was another set of songs mostly in Creole, again dealing a lot with social issues particularly those drawn from the little known early 20th century history of Haiti.

Musically this was a much simpler rock-based set dominated by the huge and expressive voice of Laveaux. Despite suffering from a cold she managed to go through a range of sweet sounds, yelps, shouts and laughter that brought the audience to its feet.

I doubt if anyone came to this concert expecting to hear jazz, and you can debate endlessly the merits of including this music at a jazz festival. In McCalla it gave us a chance to see a truly outstanding artist so it’s hard to quibble. In fact I suspect that hardened jazz fans may well have enjoyed the show, and the folkies and world music fans might even have left thinking that McCalla’s bluesy sound in particular might be worth exploring some more.

Peter Slavid broadcasts a programme of European Modern Jazz on

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