Leyla McCalla Explores Matters of the Heart on Sun Without the Heat

Leyla McCalla – Sun Without the Heat 
Anti- Records

Leyla McCalla, erstwhile Carolina Chocolate Drop and occasional Our Native Daughter, is on a search: “I am trying to be free … I’m trying to find me,” she sings at the start of this album’s first song, “Open the Road.” Then later, near the end of Sun Without the Heat, she delivers herself a message: “Give yourself a break.”

In between, she depicts a struggle to balance life as a single mom with her mission as an artist and activist. It’s not that explicit, of course. On multiple levels, the album is an imaginative weave: With her deft band, the New York-raised, New Orleans-based musician (on cello, banjo, and guitar) pairs music from her Haitian-American roots with threads of its Caribbean, Latin-American, and African family tree. She also echoes her past explorations of economic disparity, cultural identity, and colonialism’s pernicious persistence while adding frank, poetic looks at her own heartbreaks, doubts, determination, and hope for renewal. As such, it’s the most engaging, dynamic and, crucially, personal of her five solo albums.

She’d recently hinted at this fusion with her gripping multi-media theater work Breaking the Thermometer, which drew both from the violent history of Radio Haiti’s defiance of the nation’s dictatorships and from conversations with her own Haitian grandmother. Heat is something different, though. Even when she sings “Can’t have the sun without the heat,” a line from an 1857 Frederick Douglass speech meaning that anything good comes with struggle and work, she’s covering both cultural history and her own life. But overall, as on the torchy “So I’ll Go” and the quasi-rhumba “Tower,” the latter with a stinging guitar solo from guitarist Nahum Zdybel, McCalla is grappling with matters of her own heart.

Does she give herself a break? Well, kinda. The album closes with a prayer in “I Want to Believe.” Emphasis on the want. The struggles—personal and otherwise—will never be over. No sun without the heat. – GRADE: A

You can preview Sun Without the Heat at Bandcamp and elsewhere.

Anti- Records

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