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Leyla McCalla
The Capitalist Blues

Jazz Village / PIAS
Review byMichael Stone

Weaving together elements of Cajun, zydeco, jazz, R&B and her own Haitian-American heritage, conditioned by a near decade of living in New Orleans, Leyla McCalla’s The Capitalist Blues is a departure from her prior, solo acoustic outings. McCalla enlists some of the city’s outstanding players (on banjo, guitar, lap steel, fiddle, viola, bass, piano, accordion, clarinet, sax, trumpet, trombone, tuba, glockenspiel, drums, percussion) and concentrates primarily on her singing. Her style is straightforward, concrete and unadorned, yet seasoned with tenderness and a trace of whimsy conveying the palpable joy that she took in working with her collaborators.

Her third release is a lyrical rebuke of the untold emotional, psychological, socioeconomic and environmental costs visited upon the commons by late capitalism. McCalla observes, “These songs are my reflection on motherhood, womanhood, activism and spirit…. seeing more clearly the cost to humanity in placing value in capital over human life.” The songs “reflect my experience living in a capitalist society, where we are always expected to do more, be more, and have more…. I also find myself questioning the myriad inequities of the world that we live in.”

Listen "The Capitalist Blues"
With the opener, fittingly recorded at Preservation Hall, McCalla sets the tone with a bluesy, brassy, down-and-dirty New Orleans lament:
   You keep telling me to climb this ladder
   I’ve got to pay my dues
   But as I rise, the stakes get higher
   I’ve got the capitalist blues
   And if I give everything
   I won’t have much more to lose
   I am swimming in an ocean of sharks
   They are telling me how
   I’m gonna make my little mark
   In this cold, cold world…
   It’s not fair, it’s not right
   I wasn’t born to just endure all this strife
   Tryna make my way
   In this cold, cold world
   It can be such a cold, cold world

Following immediately in keen counterpoint is the only number not penned by McCalla, Trinidadian calypsonian Neville “Growling Tiger” Marcano’s classic “Money Is King” (recorded originally by Alan Lomax in the 1930s). In the debased context of contemporary politics, hers is a critical and timely reinterpretation:
   If a man has money today…
   He can commit murder and get off free
   Live in the Governor’s company
   But if you are poor
   People will tell you “Shoo!”
   A dog is better than you

Listen "Mize Pa Dous"
McCalla speaks truth to the wages of inequality with “Heavy as Lead,” questioning the policies that have degraded essential infrastructure and poisoned poor communities in particular. Likewise, “Mize Pa Dous,” sung in Haitian Kreyol, observes:
   Poverty isn’t sweet
   It wears me out…
   Poverty isn’t sweet
   It makes me ashamed…
   An expensive life is one of poverty.

Listen "Aleppo"
She extends her critique beyond the domestic realm with “Aleppo,” a fuzz-tone scorcher stirred by viewing the last videos posted to Facebook by Syrian civilians helplessly awaiting their almost certain annihilation:
   Bombs are falling in the name of peace…
   We won’t know their names.
   Their faces unknown…
   Who knows, where will they go?”

Listen "Oh My Love"
There are upbeat moments too, as with “Oh My Love,” a tender reflection on the capricious flux of domestic life:
   Our moments of perfection are so fleeting
   But when we get things right
   That’s what keeps my heart beating.

Similarly, on “Me and My Baby,” she sings with affection:
   Down by the river
   I see my baby smiling…
   And in the evening I hear my heart is singing.

Listen "Settle Down"
To close, unleashing the unruly essence of Haitian carnival music, Lakou Mizik joins McCalla on a rara-tinged “Settle Down,” wherein vaccine (Haitian single-note trumpets) and tanbou (Haitian barrel drums) punctuate the song’s reflection upon the controversy that arose when New Orleans officials ordered the city’s Confederate monuments to be removed.

Forged in challenging times, The Capitalist Blues is Leyla McCalla’s most textured, timely and evocative release to date. - Michael Stone

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Capitalist Blues is our choice for
Music of the Month, February 2019

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