“Just because I’m coming from a human-rights perspective doesn’t mean we don’t have fun in concert.” So says Leyla McCalla (her first name is pronounced like the Derek and the Dominos title song from their 1970 mega-hit double album “Layla.”) This Leyla and her band play the main stage at Avalon Theatre Saturday night.
While “Layla” and its “Other Assorted Love Songs” were short on issues of social justice, Leyla McCalla, born in New York to Haitian immigrant parents and an American citizen by birthright, is immersed in her heritage and Haiti’s historic struggle with democracy and basic survival from one catastrophe after another.
“Haiti’s always seemed like this faraway place,” McCalla says, “but we’re far more connected as Americans than we realize. Haiti was the first independent black nation in the Western Hemisphere. Its very existence,” she says, “is and remains a threat to colonial power.” (Slavery was abolished in Haiti decades before Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War Emancipation Proclamation.) “When we talk about ‘Black Lives Matter,’ Haiti is a huge part of that.”
The largest population of Haitian immigrants in Maryland is located in Salisbury, with more than 2,300, doubling the population of Haitians living in Baltimore. Most are drawn to Salisbury for work in the poultry industry. About 200 or so live in the Mid-Shore area triangle of Easton, Cambridge, and Federalsburg. “About 20 percent of our clients are Haitian immigrants,” says Matthew Peters, executive director of the Easton-based Chesapeake Multicultural Resource Center.
Earthquakes, hurricanes, attendant floods, plus the 30-year Duvalier dictatorship following an American occupation of Haiti, left the country bereft of leadership. It culminated in the 2021 assassination of its democratically elected president, Jovenel Moise.
In 1995, at age 10, McCalla spent months visiting her grandmother in Haiti, exploring her roots and learning first-hand about the nation’s daunting challenges. She cannot visit Haiti now because it is ungovernable, ruled by gangs who raise “taxes” by kidnapping people of means and holding them hostage for ransom.
A multi-disciplinary arts project commissioned by Duke University based on Radio Haiti archives it acquired inspired McCalla’s most recent album, “Breaking the Thermometer,” released in 2022. The title is a recognition of the demise of a free press, or in this case, a free voice of a radio network spreading the truth across Haiti.
The comparison of lost democracy in Haiti and the threat of authoritarianism overtaking American one-person/one-vote is hardly lost on McCalla. Her latest project is a four-song cycle called “Freedom Series,” of which two songs have been released so far.
But while the concert on Saturday will call attention to injustice, it will not be a gospel or political sermon. Leyla McCalla and her band – drummer Shawn Myers, bassist Pete Olynciw, and guitarist Nhum Zdybel – know how to make “a big and joyous sound,” says McCalla. Check her out on YouTube, especially her banjo and vocal riffs with the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops on a foot-stomping number called “Cornbread and Butterbeans.”
I don’t know if that song is on her playlist, but it’s a good-time, makin’-love celebration of just being alive, which is itself a fundamental human right.
Leyla McCalla and Band in Concert
8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 23, Avalon Theatre, 40 E. Dover St., Easton; avalonfoundation.org
Steve Parks is a retired New York arts writer and editor now living in Easton.