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Leyla McCalla pleads for more funding for arts education, less for the war on freedom campaign

Leyla McCalla pleads for more funding for arts education, less for the war on freedom campaign
Leyla McCalla heads up a blues workshop at Gassicourt College as part of the Blues sur Seine festival RFI/HIRD

Haitian-American singer-songwriter Leyla McCalla has been touring Europe with her second, acclaimed, album, A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey. RFI caught up with the virtuoso cellist and banjo player at the recent Blues sur Seine festival, west of Paris, where she tried to get youngsters into her brand of blues and experimental folk at a time when music education is under threat in her native America.

McCalla is signing autographs on scraps of paper, even hands, after an hour of playing and talking blues to a bunch of 13 year olds.

"I see a lot of myself, my 6th grade self, in this group," she says. "The self-consicousness and inquisitiveness is really vulnerable and sweet."

At their age she was already on the way to being an accomplished classical musician.

"I was in youth orchestra and learning about chamber music and just starting to play in some of my first ensembles, so it was quite a formative time for me."

Leyla McCalla reaches out to teenagers at Gassicourt College, alongside Free on alto and Daniel Tremblay on guitar Blues sur Seine

McCalla draws on her Haitian heritage and Creole influence to make songs that haunt you long after the she's stopped plucking the chords of her cello, banjo or guitar.

Her debut album, Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes, was named 2013’s Album of the Year by the London Sunday Times and Songlines magazine. And her second album A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey is on Songlines' top 10 best albums of 2016.

But there's nothing like a bunch of restless teenagers for keeping you rooted.

"I love where you get to play at festivals that are committed to community outreach and passing the torch to other kids," she says, "because that’s how I got into this.

"And I think that’s how a lot of musicians get into playing...  is someone exposing them to the music and then saying you can do this too."

As a student at Juilliard music school, it was professor André Emelianoff who lit the spark. 

"I think he was the first person that really challenged and believed in me, and helped me legitimize my sense of myself being a musician," she says.

Emelianoff and access to a good arts education both helped her become a great cellist. But she says arts education is being "gutted from the public school system programmes".

"When I was a kid it was mandatory that all kids play an instrument, now it depends on funding, the situation of each county or school district. And so it really saddens me to see that continue to sort of deteriorate."

She feels the situation is set to worsen once Donald Trump, with his promise to increase military spending,  takes office in January 2017.

"I'm very concerned with this perpetual war machine we're in. The wars we're winning, we're fighting, all in the name of democracy and freedom. I just don't believe it. They say 'we can't do arts education because that doesn't fund the war on freedom campaign'. I feel like that's what it comes down to."

As the daughter of Haitian immigrants, she's also started to feel more of an outsider.

"My family fled Haiti during the [Jean-Claude] Duvalier regime. That's why I play the cello! I probably wouldn’t be doing this if I’d stayed in Haiti," she says. "If I didn’t have the American public education system supporting my education." 

Without that support McCalla says many kids won't get to realise their potential, musical or otherwise. 

"If you don’t have those kinds of opportunities where people will cut you some slack in order to let you grow, then it’s just harder to imagine the American dream coming true.

"And the American dream of just buying more stuff and having more stuff doesn’t get to the heart of what makes people happy. So I feel like the dream is a little bit 'deferred', to use a Langston Hughes term."

Follow Leyla McCalla on facebook




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