Leyla McCalla
Photo: Noe Cugny / Courtesy of Anti- Records

Leyla McCalla Explores Haitian Music on ‘Breaking The Thermometer’

With Breaking the Thermometer, Leyla McCalla explores identity, freedom, and joy through Haitian music and culture. It’s a reminder of the album as a statement.

Breaking the Thermometer
Leyla McCalla
Anti- Records
6 May 2022

“Memories of Haiti come to me in waves.” So writes Leyla McCalla, a classical and folk musician born in New York City to Haitian emigrants and activists,  in the credits of her newest album, Breaking the Thermometer. The album’s opening track, “Nan Fon Bwa”, greets the listener with the soothing invitation of gentle waves caressing the Haitian shore. Cross conversation between songbirds and roosters punctuates the tempo of the waves, and eventually, McCalla’s rhythmic plucking of her cello joins in. Before 30 seconds have elapsed, this mesmerizing convergence of elemental sounds and rhythm entwines with a phone conversation between Leyla McCalla and her mother discussing a very young Leyla’s visit to Haiti and the lasting impact it had on her. With artistic creativity and aplomb, McCalla’s art has enveloped the hearer viscerally in her waves of memories.

Breaking the Thermometer is equal parts performance art, historical immersion, and a personal journey of self-discovery. The album emerged out of a multi-disciplinary project commissioned by Duke University, which invited McCalla to engage the archives of Radio Haiti that the university had acquired in 2016. Under the leadership of agronomist turned journalist Jean Dominique, Radio Haiti in 1971 became the first media outlet of the island nation to broadcast in Kreyòl, the language of the overwhelming percentage of the population. This was a revolutionary and radically democratic movement as, before Dominique’s innovation, media and news broadcasts were only in French, a language spoken by merely 10% of Haiti’s residents. The radio station and its broadcast of traditional Haitian music and news in the people’s language became a radically democratic tool of resistance to the Jean-Claude Duvalier dictatorship. 

By the time Duke approached her to explore these historical archives, Leyla McCalla was already an established musical force within folk and roots music. She had been part of the Grammy-winning group, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, whose founding members included Rhiannon Giddens. McCalla’s solo work has sought to illuminate the Black roots of American music. In this work, she has explored the potent energy of music for social critique and radical self-definition. 

What emerged from her exploration of the Duke archives was a multi-disciplinary, multi-media experience combining music, dance, theatre, and visuals. It told the story of Haiti through the story of its revolutionary station, Radio Haiti, and its charismatic director Jean Dominique and his wife and partner, Michèle Montas. While forming the performance piece “Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever”, McCalla discovered that the history within this story melded with her journey of self-discovery, blurring the lines between personal memoir and historical testimony in powerfully creative ways.

McCalla realized that an album was simultaneously arising from the project. The result is Breaking the Thermometer, released on 6 May 2022 by Anti- Records. The album combines original compositions with traditional Haitian folk songs and blends English and Kreyòl with music and audio broadcast clips. McCalla’s instrumental and vocal skills are on full display within the album’s songs.  She moves effortlessly between the captivating sound structures of Afro-Caribbean rhythms along with the Brazilian jazz-fused-with-rock cover, “You Don’t Know Me”. McCalla included this song written by Brazilian artist Caetano Veloso while he was in exile because she felt that its themes of isolation and strength matched the mood of the moment and the tenor of the album. Hearing Leyla McCalla breathe herself into the lyrics “You don’t know me / Bet you’ll never get to know me” is particularly striking. This blend of self-discovery, historical reclamation, and counter-narrative emerges from and lands within spaces marked by colonialist cultural appropriation. That’s part of the potency of this album.

Given this, Leyla McCalla’s voice will be a challenge to some listeners and a critical lens to examine the narrative gaps within their knowledge. The album’s content and themes compel careful, curious listening that prompts further exploration and research. Because Haiti emerged out of a cultural and political revolution of formerly enslaved people as the first Black governed country in the western hemisphere. Its narrative has often been suppressed by those invested in the status quo. In this sense, Breaking The Thermometer’s reclamation of the Afro-Caribbean roots of much American folk music is an important statement.

McCalla’s album embraces the beauty and complexity of the Haitian—and Haitian-American—cultural and political landscape. Here the interweaving of archival recordings, contemporary interviews, and new and traditional music flesh out the nuance and ambiguity of a people and land while emphasizing the radicality of voice and rhythm in the service of freedom of expression. She uses the music and archival recordings throughout the album to illuminate the interplay between revolutionary spirit and repressive authoritarianism. This interplay is multi-dimensional and addresses multiple expressions: western colonialism and the slave trade, brutal internal dictatorships propped up by outside interests, and the repression of identity and free expression in resistance to pluralistic cultures.

“Dodinin”, for instance, is a lively song fueled by McCalla’s tenor banjo and Jeff Pierre’s tanbou percussion to communicate the revolutionary joy of a people’s righteous anger. The music sweeps one up in the beautiful frenzy at the heart of human freedom. The title translates to “rocking,” a referral to enslavers’ rocking chairs—a symbol of plundered wealth and oppression from which they will be unseated. McCalla explains that the song’s genre is Rara, a traditional Haitian form of carnival music that connects unfettered joy with revolutionary responses to bodily and spiritual oppression.

There is a significant emotional impact in McCalla’s original compositions for the album intermixed with the traditional folk songs. In “Veni Wé”, McCalla voices a tender ode recounting the love between Radio Haiti’s Jean Dominque and Michèle Montas, which doubles as Leyla McCalla’s love letter to the island. “Memory Song” implores the listener to consider “How much does a memory weigh?” along with the bodily price incurred in the legacy of ancestral trauma. The questions hang within the meditative beat, frustrating any easy rush to pat answers.

The album showcases Leyla McCalla’s instrumental dexterity, rich vocals, and creative intertwining of media. It is a work that deserves time and intentional focus from the listener. It might be that the ideal experience of this material is in the live, multi-media form where visuals accompany the aural. This setting itself commits the audience to sit for a while in attention to the performance. This observation, however, is more of a criticism of our own attention-deficient culture of distraction, pause and play, and shuffle. Breaking the Thermometer is a reminder of the album as a statement, a covenant between artist and listener to intentional and attentional communion. Leyla McCalla’s profound creativity asks for such attention in his album and richly rewards it. 

RATING 8 / 10