Although it’s a small drop-in on a wee spit of land, Louis Michot and Leyla McCalla’s latest project, a five-song EP titled Tiny Island, makes a big splash. The Cajun fiddler and his Melody Makers — guitarist Mark Bingham, bassist Bryan Webre, and drummer Kirkland Middleton, with Michot lead vocals — team up with Haitian cellist and singer McCalla for a cross-cultural throwdown in a live rural setting, a tiny island on Michot’s property in Prairie Des Femmes, Louisiana.
It’s not their first outing together. McCalla has played and recorded previously with another of Michot’s bands, the genre-busting Lost Bayou Ramblers, who won a Grammy for 2017’s Kalenda, featuring McCalla on the title cut. She has also played with the Melody Makers, collaborating with Michot since 2015, with him as a guest on her 2018 release, The Capitalist Blues.
The two cultures merge smoothly, Haitian and Cajun ingredients stirred into a spicy gumbo, both soulful and as down-home as Southern comfort food gets.
The Haitian folk song “Latibonit” initially sounds like soft gypsy jazz, Michot’s fiddle sighing softly behind McCalla’s vocal as she describes a beautiful valley in Haiti. There’s a squeaking noise that creeps in and keeps intensifying that you think at first might be some sort of technical glitch in this live recording. But it was just the frog symphony on the tiny island deciding that somebody had given them their cue to join in. The rhythm section kicks in about a minute and a half in, and the thing finds it legs and starts to acknowledge its Cajun side, swaying along to a big finish with all the participants finally collapsing in laughter at the froggy accompaniment.
Michot’s fiddle talents are on display on a couple of cuts. “Two-Step de Ste. Marie” is just what the title proclaims, a jaunty two-stepper with a firm backbone suitable for endless revolutions round the honky-tonk dance floor or some crippled pony zydeco high-steppin’ if the spirits move you.
Likewise, “Blues de Neg Francais” is a dance floor filler, a quick-step waltz or a bouncy two-stepper smoothed out by Michot’s fiddle glide that hits a Mississippi Hill Country drone at several intervals before floating back down to Cajun country for the dancers to re-engage.
“Les Plats Sont Tous Mis Sur La Table” is a transfixing mix of country-style Cajun with a Haitian accent, Michot and McCalla trading off vocals over the local froggy symphony that kicks in with a vengeance once again, causing McCalla to break down into giggles at the end.
It’s island culture you don’t come across very often, but a visit that stays with you long after the trip is over.