The Haitian-American musician explores the troubled history of creole-language Radio Haiti on her rewarding fourth album
Born in New York to Haitian parents and now based in New Orleans, Leyla McCalla has explored her ancestral roots on previous solo albums. The result of a commission from Duke University in North Carolina, this fourth venture takes her deeper into the history of the Caribbean republic and that of Radio Haiti, the station that for decades confronted the corruption and brutality of regimes that arrested and tortured journalists and eventually murdered its founder. It was almost the only station that broadcast in the local creole language rather than French. McCalla delivers the story – which has also become a theatrical piece – with a mixture of original and traditional songs, dropping in the odd radio clip for effect.
The pieces are mostly sung in creole, though there are English-language pieces such as Caetano Veloso’s Brazilian song of exile You Don’t Know Me. McCalla’s vocal style remains relaxed, but set against simple backings that ally her cello and banjo playing with sophisticated percussion, she conjures moods of abjection (Fort Dimanche concerns a notorious prison), protest (“We are the ones who bake the bread and get burnt at the oven,” complains Dodinin) and longing (Boukman’s Prayer). An ambitious, accomplished piece of work.