Leyla McCalla provides a tantalizing glimpse into her Haitian roots through her infectious rhythms and velvety crooning on her latest project, Breaking the Thermometer. But the smooth texture reveals a rough surface underneath. The lilting melodies support a lyrical structure full of pain and corruption, but imbued with a fiery spirit of revolution against colonial rule.
The project originally was conceived as a theater piece commissioned by Duke University in 2016 to examine and illuminate the archives of Radio Haiti, which broadcasted local news in Haitian Kreyol from 1957 to 2003. McCalla, a cello-wielding former Carolina Chocolate Drops member now living in New Orleans, was given artistic license to interpret the material, adding original compositions to the archived material that reflect her Haitian ancestors’ struggles as well as her own journey trying to find her way as a Haitian American.
Sounding like a party anthem fit for some high-steppin’ and twirling, “Dodinin,” which translates as “rocking,” has lyrics that are anything but laid back. The rocking here is done by slave masters enthroned on their front porch overseeing fiefdoms built on the blood, sweat, and tears of the enslaved Haitian population. Accompanying herself on tenor banjo and supported by a lilting, tropical percussive undercurrent, McCalla recreates the ’80s version of the tune by a New York City-based exiled Haitian art collective calling themselves Atis Independan. “The song basically says we’re gonna take you out of your rocking chair and we’re having a revolution,” McCalla explains in a video preview, adding that the song is representative of Haitian rara music, which she defines as “Carnival protest music.”
The love story of Radio Haiti station owner Jean Dominique and his journalist wife Michéle Montas is chronicled in “Vini Wè”: “I’m here for you like you’re here for me,” McCalla croons, surrounded by the soft caresses of Nahum Zdybel’s guitar. Once again, the soothing, lilting melody is a platform for revolutionary praise for the couple who spoke out openly against their oppressors, eventually leading to Dominique’s assassination.
Doing research for the project in addition to perusing the Duke archives, McCalla checked with her Haitian-born mother for shared memories of childhood visits to the island. Some of that conversation is included on the opening track, “Nan Fon Bwa,” introduced with the sound of crashing surf and a crowing rooster. The transcribed phone conversation she had with her mom reveals the pride in being of Haitian heritage McCalla brought back from a childhood visit, her mother commenting that McCalla came back saying that she was Haitian, where before she was not sure she belonged to any nationality.
Breaking the Thermometer is a deep dive into Haitian culture by a guide rediscovering her heritage along the way and exulting in the discovery.
Breaking the Thermometer comes out May 6 via ANTI Records.