Artists are drawn to exploring, experimenting, and expressing. Young artists, like former Carolina Chocolate Drops cellist Leyla McCalla, are drawn to this way of life to discover something about themselves as well.
Classically trained and experienced as a chamber ensemble musician, McCalla moved from her suburban New Jersey childhood and New York City career to try something different in New Orleans. She left the Grammy-winning American roots group Carolina Chocolate Drops to go solo.
“I haven’t always known what box I’m supposed to fit in,” said McCalla during a recent phone interview just before she headed out on a canoe trip on the bayou in Assumption Parish, La. “I don’t feel like I’ve arrived yet. Maybe you never feel that way. Maybe there are just different points of arrival.”
McCalla will bring her unconventional musical perspective and technique to the Olin Arts Center on Sunday. The audience can expect to hear her original pieces, including songs from her recently released “Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes,” and plenty of Creole and Haitian folk music.
Although McCalla’s Haitian parents were not musical, her aunt played guitar and provided an early backdrop to what would become McCalla’s life journey. She took up the cello in the fourth grade, even though she had no idea what it was, and played in her school orchestra.
“It was really kind of funny,” said McCalla. “The cello wasn’t my top choice, but my parents were really supportive, especially when I started to sound half decent. When I could make a nice sound, that’s when I started to fall in love with music.”
Another moment in McCalla’s musical odyssey came when she was in college as a music student and saw someone playing the cello as a guitar.
“I saw him playing at a party, and I was blown away,” said McCalla. “He was playing the cello like a flamenco guitarist. Whatever it was he was doing, that’s what I wanted to do.”
Since then, McCalla has created a unique folk sound influenced by classical music and Haitian heritage to her songwriting and performance. She taught herself the guitar and banjo and has steeped herself in New Orleans music history. Her voice matches the unhurried, mellowed ways of the Southern bayous.
“The musical life and culture in New Orleans is really unique,” said McCalla. “It’s an inspiring place, and place, as a musician, becomes essential to your life. The more I learned about the history and cultural influences of New Orleans, the more I started to find myself.”
McCalla, now 28, also found inspiration in the life and work of Langston Hughes. Reading the Harlem Renaissance writer’s autobiography and poetry prompted McCalla to seriously pursue a creative path. Her tribute album consists of original compositions set to Hughes’ poetry. The recording also features Carolina Chocolate Drops friends Rhiannon Giddens and Hubby Jenkins, as well as new friends Don Vappie and Luke Winslow King from New Orleans.
“I’m exploring different sounds on the cello,” said McCalla. “Everyone wants to understand music as different categories. But they’re so interchangeable and interrelated. Classical education really affected my playing, and my foundation comes from that tradition. But I’m still finding different influences and different ways to play.”
Who: Leyla McCalla, cellist, formerly with the Carolina Chocolate Drops
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Olin Arts Center, Bates College, 75 Russell St., Lewiston
Tickets: $15 at www.batestickets.com