Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes
“Songs continue to gain power over time,” the cellist, banjoist, singer-songwriter, and composer Leyla McCalla told NPR in 2020. “I think that my voice has gotten more powerful and more sure of itself in my own artistic journey. And these poems continue to reflect the reality of the moment that we’re living in.”
McCalla was referring to Smithsonian Folkways’ new version of Vari-Colored Songs, a formative early album of hers that paid tribute to the great Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes with fluidly vernacular folk-classical settings. But the renewable energy of old music—particularly music of place and displacement—has always been her power source. In Carolina Chocolate Drops, she had helped to revive a rich tradition of Black string-band music before it faded from popular memory. After earning solo praise for infusing Hughes with the strains of her chosen home of New Orleans and her ancestral one of Haiti, further acclaimed albums laid a trail to Our Native Daughters, a roots-music banjo bonanza with Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, and Allison Russell.
Just before the coronavirus pandemic, McCalla premiered Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever, an evening-length multimedia show that delves deep into Haiti’s modern history and will also be staged at Big Ears. But here, with new string arrangements by Nashville’s adventurous chamber ensemble Chatterbird, she performs music from Vari-Colored Songs, which The New York Times said “holds tidings of family, memory, solitude, and the inexorability of time: weighty thoughts handled with the lightest touch imaginable.”