MCWICKLE/cc-by-2.0 Leyla McCalla during her time with the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
It is a Sunday night and I should be at home doing homework. Instead, I am sitting in the back of my friend’s car, listening to her talk with her neighbor, wondering if the concert we are on the way to will be worth the loss of sleep I see coming my way like a freight train.
Creative Alliance, which is the concert venue, is an odd mix of sterile and vibrant. It is full of art, and I know that it often acts as a community space, hosting talks and craft workshops and everything else under the sun, but the walls are painted white and the floor is smooth concrete, giving it the feel of a museum.
Unexpectedly, the foyer is almost empty except for a couple small groups of people. My friend knows one of them, so we walk up and start chatting. Little did I know that one of them was one of the performers, Free Feral, who plays viola and sings in the Leyla McCalla trio. After a little bit of chatting, someone brings up that the reason why the foyer is so empty is that everyone else has already found their seats, so we hurry to do the same.
The theater space of Creative Alliance is extremely nice. The seating is very ordered, although it is all general admission, and there is little standing or dancing space. A determined dancer could waltz down the aisle or flatfoot by the bar, but most people remain in their seats.
The lights go down shortly, and Paul Rucker walks on stage. He has a great presence: He is humorous and serious at once, talking about dark times in our history which are not over yet, namely lynching and racism but also joking constantly about everything from writing a book on alcoholism when you’ve never touched the stuff to rats running around the theater. There aren’t any actual rats in the theater, by the way. His music starts out predictable and melodic but quickly becomes experimental and wild. He plays one Bach piece like this and it is wonderful.
“This next tune is about a fox chasing a rabbit,” he says. “Close your eyes, and you’ll be able to see them. Or keep them open, and you won’t see them. You’ll just see me playing the cello. Maybe a rat. I don’t know.”
He moves on to play cello while quizzing us on historical trivia, “In what year was the Emancipation Proclamation made?” and plays a couple of songs for us on his guitar. His songs are about divorce and love. He is an enjoyable musician, and his visual art, which includes pieces on gun violence, Klan robes he made, as well as many other pieces, is certainly worth seeing if you get the chance.
There is a brief intermission, during which we all go out to explore the lobby. Creative Alliance’s current exhibition is of literal race cards, which are recorded greeting cards of people talking about their experiences regarding their race. On the inside, there is a picture of the person who made the recording and a piece of art they made to accompany their words. It is uncomfortable in the gallery with everyone else around you, but it is touching to hear people’s voices and to listen to their words.
Once we are all seated again, the Leyla McCalla trio comes on. McCalla’s stage presence is lovely and quite different from Paul Rucker’s. Her voice is incredible. The trio is comprised of Leyla on the cello, banjo and vocals; Free Feral on viola and vocals; and Daniel Tremblay on banjo, guitar and vocals.
Much of Leyla’s inspiration comes from her Haitian heritage, so many of the songs she plays are rooted in that. Many are in Creole or French. Themes of the songs include women coming to bad ends as well as Haitian songs about crops thriving or dying, about police brutality and about life.
Part of the trio’s greatness comes from their creative use of instruments. Leyla plucks her cello almost like an upright guitar or bass much of the time.
Leyla’s explanations of the Creole and French songs are also perfect, or close to it. They let the audience in on the song even when no one understands the language, but do not go into excessive detail. When the trio finally leaves the stage, though I am tired and stressed about the homework I still need to do, I am sorry to see them go.
The Creative Alliance has seen many great musicians from near and far and will likely see more. It is a little difficult to get there, as it is out by Patterson Park, but is definitely worth it. An Uber would work well, especially if split between people, as would a bike ride. The 22 MTA bus also stops very close by.