Photo: Sarrah Danzinger / Courtesy of Shore Fire

Leyla McCalla’s ‘The Capitalist Blues’ Is the Essential Album to Inspire Resistance

Leyla McCalla's The Capitalist Blues is an inspired album centralizing the importance of music as an outlet for castigating society's ills.

The Capitalist Blues
Leyla McCalla
Jazz Village
25 January 2019

Listeners should expect tenacious political and social commentary from an album titled The Capitalist Blues. Leyla McCalla, the renowned cellist and Americana/folk performer, unequivocally delivers. First receiving recognition as a member of the iconic old-time string group the Carolina Chocolate Drops, McCalla’s solo career is equally rousing. Her latest release, The Capitalist Blues, is an inspired album centralizing the importance of music as an outlet for castigating society’s ills. More so, each track reveals McCalla’s fluency with varying musical genres ranging from R&B to traditional Haitian, rock ‘n’ roll to Calypso, and Cajun dancehall to zydeco. Despite the array of genres, The Capitalist Blues is a coherent and meaningful call for resistance.

The opening title track features a swanky New Orleans jazz rhythm accented by a prominent horns section and tinkling piano. A trumpet develops a melancholic interplay with McCalla on banjo echoing the track’s discontent with upward mobility. “The Capitalist Blues” specifically addresses the ubiquitous narratives enforcing a singular understanding of achievement. She problematizes the notion of labor and capital especially when an individual is consistently told “to go a little higher / Try to take a different view / But you can see / I’m not inspired / I’ve got the capitalist blues.” “The Capitalist Blues” addresses the turmoil derived from physical and emotional labor when the outcome is empty and measured in monetary yield only. As McCalla contends, labor as a method to accrue capital is a fruitless endeavor “if I give everything / I won’t have much more to lose/ It’s not fair, it’s not right.” Marxism meets jazz swing in The Capitalist Blues.

McCalla engenders the hardships she sings about. “Heavy As Lead” exhibits the ordeal experienced by her family when her daughter underwent treatments for lead poisoning. McCalla summons a soul music influence underscored by an organ to convey the song’s powerful sense of worriment. McCalla’s voice is steadfast as she laments the economic concerns weathered by families experiencing similar conditions. For many, the high costs associated with treatment are devastating and insurmountable. When her voice ascends to sing, “Don’t tell me everything’s gonna be all right,” she renders a fortified call for empathy rather than charity. Her voice signals the distress synonymous with survival while critiquing the systematic conditions upholding environmental health issues.

McCalla continues her consideration of the oppression endured under capitalism in “Money Is King“. Prodigiously reflective of the contemporary moment, the track portrays the privilege gained from wealth. Originally recorded during the Depression era by the Trinidadian calypsonian, Neville Marcano a.k.a. Growling Tiger, the song lambastes inequality and consumerism. Consider the prevailing cases of affluenza resulting in zero jail time or the sneering MAGA-hat wearing teen’s ticket to a sit-down interview on the Today Show. As Growling Tiger lamented and McCalla reestablishes, “people do not care if he have cocobay [a skin disease] / He can commit murder and get off free / And live in the governor’s company / But if you are poor, the people tell you ‘Shoo!’ / And a dog is better than you.”

McCalla is not myopic in her criticism of capitalism. She clearly articulates the direct correlation between economics and consumerism to other forms of oppression. “Mize Pa Dous” raises consciousness about poverty. She sings in Haitian Creole and uses a lap steel guitar and a tanbou, Haiti’s national instrument, to root her Haitian heritage. “Aleppo” evokes a more prominent rock ‘n’ roll sound as McCalla switches out her banjo for a riotous electric guitar. The track’s distinct politicality is reinforced by piercing distortion creating an aural discomfort. This is McCalla’s overt method of engaging her audience. The listener’s discomfort is petty and trivial compared to those living in a calamitous war zone. Yet, McCalla does not succumb to the tendency to enshrine an issue without offering a solution. The track, “Penha,” is a prayer for peace which McCalla translated from the Portuguese.

As such, The Capitalist Blues is not entirely a call for uprising and awareness. Rather, her inclusion of jaunty and uplifting tracks are justly compelling thereby enabling the album’s sense of balance. “Lavi Vye Neg”‘s use of percussion creates mirthful energy revisited in “Settle Down’s” polyrhythmic force. “Me and My Baby” features Topsy Chapman and Solid Harmony to create a vocal bouncy juxtaposed to the full-band instrumentation. While “Oh My Love” summons the sounds of classic Cajun music as the track’s use of accordion radiates. At times, the instrumentation is so vibrant and robust McCalla’s vocals are lost. This is likely intentional to utilize her voice as simply another instrumental line.

So rise up, advocate for change, create music for social progression but have a little fun in the meantime. Leyla McCalla’s The Capitalist Blues is the essential album to inspire resistance.

RATING 9 / 10