Leyla McCalla 2024
Photo: Chris Scheurich / Anti- Records

Leyla McCalla Tends to Deep Roots on ‘Sun Without the Heat’

In this most recent work, folk artist Leyla McCalla continues cultivating an expansive and complex sense of roots and relative self. It’s a joy to witness.

Sun Without the Heat
Leyla McCalla
Anti- Records
12 April 2024

“Nothing that I say hasn’t been said before,” sings Leyla McCalla in the title track of her new album Sun Without the Heat, “Nothing that I feel hasn’t been felt before.” It’s not meant to be heard as self-deprecation; McCalla knows well the multiple lineages at the foundation of her work. She embraces them, in fact, and her role as a contemporary bearer of so many sounds, words, and ideas that have brought her to where she is now. In her skillful heart, mind, and hands, she takes these elements and crafts them into entirely original pieces: there may be no new stories, but McCalla knows the importance of the telling.

On Sun Without the Heat, McCalla–at various points a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Our Native Daughters, not to mention an award-winning multidisciplinary solo artist–makes music that is vibrant, simultaneously critical and hopeful, a thing of socially engaged beauty from start to finish. McCalla’s range as a performer is brilliant and, in many ways, understated; her voice, cello, banjo, and guitar all float so smoothly that even the album’s hottest, hardest moments are transcendent. Even so, there is no compromise here. McCalla does not shy away from hard-hitting citations. Cultural worker Susan Raffo and Frederick Douglass inspire the aforementioned title track’s themes of generational trauma. She dedicates “Scaled to Survive” to activist Alexis Pauline Gumbs, whose influence as an ancestral worker shines through in the lyrics (“What you learned drowning / Taught me how to breathe”).

Musically, Leyla McCalla draws on a wide range of styles from across the African continent and diaspora. She begins with “Open the Road”, whose lilting lead guitar ostinato sounds like it drifted out of a sunny piece of classic highlife. Clave patterns abound, evoking the fraught human histories and geographies of the Caribbean. They serve as a gentle underlay for the soaring voice and rich strings on sunkissed “Scaled to Survive”; they drive the spiritual “Take Me Away” urgently forward. The dazed melancholy of lovelorn “So I’ll Go” evokes early blues, while “Tree” sees McCalla move in psychedelic directions (“Tears fall to the sea / Will the ocean / Heal me?”) from acoustic folk to explosive, plugged-in rock. Directly after, “Sun Without the Heat” is McCalla’s voice and solo guitar, a simple melody allowing complete lyrical clarity.

Singer Ali Mohammed Birra’s “Eessaati Si Argaa?” and a set of Oromo proverbs translated into English serve as the basis of “Love We Had”, an uptempo song pondering the staying power of young love. It’s a final burst of high energy before soothing final tracks “Give Yourself a Break” and “I Want to Believe”, both expressions of faith and self-compassion that make for a fitting ending to an album that begins with the assertion that “I am finding, I’m finding, I’m finding my way” and a plea to “Open the road / Carry me home.”

Sun Without the Heat sounds like the transition from spring into summer, with everything awake and in full bloom. Leyla McCalla is always outstanding, a presence full to the brim with light and energy. In this most recent work, she continues cultivating an expansive and complex sense of roots and relative self. It’s a joy to witness.

RATING 8 / 10