"Fists are flying in the name of love," sings Leyla McCalla on Aleppo, the sobering standout centrepiece of her third album, The Capitalist Blues. "So much violence in the name of love," she continues as the guitar pierces us with a shriek of obstreperous feedback. "We look on and on, we don't heed the call / Who knows if we care at all?"
Prompted by first-hand accounts of the war in Syria, McCalla's song Aleppo is most remarkable for its unlikely marriage of mournful vocal with a discordant guitar sound reminiscent of Gang of Four's Andy Gill, Television's Tom Verlaine or Hendrix at his most psychedelically expressive. So blisteringly cacophonous is this exquisite racket that you can imagine the bombs falling all around you as McCalla's helpless, traumatized voice cries out.
"I was watching Facebook Live testimonials of the people in Aleppo during the siege of 2016," she told Steve Hochman from The Bluegrass Situation, explaining the story behind the track. "People basically saying, 'I exist. I’m here. This is what’s happening in my city.' It was really surreal... I had the line come into my head: 'Bombs are falling in the name of peace.' That opened the doors to exploring the idea, not just the idea, but exploring how violence is seen as a way to peace in our society, how backwards that is, how messed up. I wanted it to sound angry and frustrated and devastating. I think we got it!"
Aleppo was a key battleground in the Syrian civil war, where thousands of civilians lived under siege during a four year stand-off between the Syrian state forces, supported by Russian air strikes and Shia militias, and the rebel Sunni Muslim opposition.
President Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000, has been fighting for control of the country since the Arab Spring in 2011 when protests against his repressive regime quickly escalated into civil war. Aleppo, once the largest city in Syria and the centre of the nation's commerce, eventually fell in December 2016. Rebel strongholds in the city were razed to the ground. More than 30,000 people died in Aleppo between 2012 and 2016, about two-thirds of them civilians.
From 2014, the horrific civil war was made worse still by the rapid expansion of Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh, whose militants occupied large areas of both Syria and Iraq, proclaiming it a "caliphate". This prompted a US-led coalition to begin airstrikes in August that year in both Iraq and Syria.
By the end of 2018, according to Amnesty International, more than 400,000 people had died in Syria since 2011, with 6.6 million being displaced from their homes. More than 5 million people have fled the country. Government forces and their allies have been responsible for "war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law, including indiscriminate attacks and direct attacks on civilians," not to mention repeated use of chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, blister agent sulphur mustard and the choking agent chlorine. Meanwhile, around 100,000 Syrian men, women and children have been "disappeared" by Syrian forces as well as extremist and opposition groups. The civilian death toll continues to rise every single day.
Following a training in classical music, the 33 year-old Leyla McCalla moved from her home in suburban New Jersey to New Orleans in 2010, to be closer to her Haitian roots. She started playing the banjo and earned a living as a busker before being invited to join The Carolina Chocolate Drops in early 2012. McCalla is best known as a cellist, both on her two previous solo albums and her previous band, but she did not play cello on her 2019 record. "I've been really enjoying playing my guitar lately because it's the newest instrument I own," she told Max Mazonowicz in The Digital Fix earlier in 2019, but confessed: "I have also been missing my cello".
As the title suggests, her latest album is grounded in social commentary, with songs about poverty and social welfare. Three are sung in Haitian Creole, which McCalla refers to as a “language of protest”, such as Mize Pa Dous (‘Poverty Isn’t Sweet’).
“Everyone’s making a political statement,” McCall - the daughter of Haitian American human rights activists - told NPR’s Talia Schlanger in May 2019. “Whether you’re aware of the political statement that you’re making or not is another issue. I think it’s impossible to be apolitical.”
Learn more about Leyla McCalla here:
About the curator: Jon Ewing
After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.