The Chocolate Drops Drop into Northampton

Jackie Leahy ’14
Arts Editor

Cellist Layla McCullough of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a band performing at the Calvin tomorrow, is a former Smithie.

When did you first begin playing music?

I started playing through the public school system in New Jersey. I was eight years old.

Where are you from?

I was born in New York and when I was five, my family relocated to Maplewood, New Jersey. [We] moved to Accra, Ghana in 10th grade, then we moved back to NJ, to Maplewood. [Then I moved] to Northampton, to Maplewood, to Brooklyn, to New Orleans about three years ago, two and a half, I guess really. August 2008. I love New Orleans. I was brought there by a friend and I met some musicians on the street who invited me to come play with them and live with them. I just fell in love with New Orleans, so that next year I would go in the streets [and play]. Then I just kind of decided, time to just do it, you know, I had nothing to lose. A big part of why I moved down there was because I didn’t really care about what I was playing in New York and I wanted to re-center myself creatively. It’s been really great in that way and totally necessary.

When did you realize you wanted to pursue music as a career?

I think I realized that when I was about 13. I got the opportunity to study with Juilliard professor Andre Emelianoff. He brought my playing to the level that I was really making music. There have been a lot of twists and turns in there, but the funny thing is when I moved to New York and I was in this conservatory-like program, I realized I didn’t want to play classical music; I took a lot of jazz classes. He really had a huge influence on my playing and inspired me to think outside of the box. There are so many people I thought I might stick out if I played other music and then I just wanted to play other music, y’know?

How did you end up with the Carolina Chocolate Drops?

Well, I had heard of the band when I started getting into old-time music a couple of years ago. My sister studies old-time fiddling, and her teacher, who is a clogger and a fiddler, took her to a Carolina Chocolate Drops concert and they [the band] were kind of in transition, so they were searching out people to be part of the band. She was like, “You should really find my sister in New Orleans,” so one of the band’s managers was walking in the streets looking for me. [When he found me] he said, “Do you have a sister in school in Ashfield?” So, that’s how we all met.

What led you to leave Smith?

Well, I think that it was when I applied first year, I was really excited to go to an all-womens’ college and about the music program, but I really wanted to go to a conservatory. I got off on a classical [academic] track in Ghana. [But at Smith] I could practice … and get myself playing well enough to audition at another school. [While at Smith] socially, academically, it was really challenging for me. I felt like I wanted to be in New York, to tell you the truth. I auditioned a lot and transferred to NYU and that’s where I ended up graduating from. If I wasn’t studying music I probably would have stayed at Smith.

What’s it like to be back in Northampton?

We have played at the Calvin Theater [before]. I think this is going to be my second time here. It’s kind of funny ’cause it was 10 years ago that I was living there. I remember certain things about the layout of the town, but it’s really fun to visit. But I like the Calvin Theater. I think the last time I performed [there] I said something like, “I was at Smith College for a year,” and there was a roar from the crowd.

What artists have inspired your music?

Like I said, Rufus Cappadocia was a huge influence. A lot of the standard repertory, Carolina Chocolate Drops for sure … I really like listening to a lot of West African music and replicating the sound of the kora on the cello. Yeah, I would say that’s it.

What advice do you have for current Smith students/musicians?

Well, I guess to just follow your ear. Learning how to play by ear and not off the page makes you a better musician. Challenge yourself by not needing to look at the page all the time and by playing with people.

The Chocolate Drops are playing at the Calvin Theater April 13 at 8 p.m.

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