Diaspora

Leyla McCalla previews new album 'Breaking the Thermometer' at Jazz Fest set on Friday – NOLA.com

Leyla McCalla (right) releases her new album ‘Breaking the Thermometer’ on May 6.

Leyla McCalla (right) releases her new album ‘Breaking the Thermometer’ on May 6.
Leyla McCalla sings the song “Pouki” in her theatrical work “Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever” and on the album based on the show, which is due out on May 6. It’s a political protest song popularized by Haitian singer Manno Charlemagne.
“‘Pouki’ means ‘Why?’ in Kreyol,” McCalla says. “Why is life the way it is? One of the lines that resonates for me is ‘Why does love taste like pain?’ — Why does the big shark always go for the small fish? It’s really beautiful playful lyricism that nobody understands because it’s in Kreyol. That’s part of my mission here — this language that fomented a revolution that has made such an impact on the world.”
The album, with the shortened title “Breaking the Thermometer,” is propelled by McCalla’s cello and banjo playing and singing. Sometimes it encapsulates painful parts of Haiti’s past in beautiful songs. “Fort Dimanche” is a beautiful song, though it’s about a notorious prison run by President Jean-Claude Duvalier, who was ousted in 1986.
The theater piece and album talk about McCalla’s embrace of her Haitian identity and the legacy of Radio Haiti, an independent, Kreyol language radio station that shutdown in 2003 after it was targeted by political violence.
McCalla’s parents emigrated from Haiti to New York, where she grew up. She pursued music and was a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops before launching her solo career. She’s explored her Haitian identity and the country’s music in socially conscious albums including “A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey” and “Capitalist Blues.”
In 2016, she performed at Duke University while touring in support of “A Day for the Hunter.” Duke had recently acquired the archives of Radio Haiti, and the university invited McCalla to create a theater piece based on the recordings.
“I had no idea that it would take over my life for the next five years, but I am grateful for it,” she says.
She delved into the archives and worked with Kiyoko McCrae on a devised theater piece, which premiered at Duke in 2020, one week before the pandemic shutdowns. The pandemic gave McCalla more time to work on the theater piece, which premiered locally at the Contemporary Arts Center in December 2021. She also met Andy Kaulkin, the director of ANTI- records, and started working on the album, which also includes songs not in the show.

The album opens with “Nan Fon Bwa,” which features a recording of McCalla’s mother talking about McCalla returning from a trip to Haiti as a young girl with a new consciousness about her Haitian identity.
McCalla says her memories of staying with her grandmother outside Port-au-Prince were the stuff of childhood — stepping on a sea urchin at the beach and listening to the sound of roosters in the morning. But her grandmother also showed her all aspects of Haitian life.
“The poverty in Haiti was always very obvious, but there was a lot of beauty that I thought never got a lot of attention,” McCalla says. Her grandmother also made an impression with her fierce pride in being Haitian, she says.
Exploring the archives also reflected the worldviews of her parents. Her father is an advocate for human rights and her mother is a lawyer who’s worked with immigrants. McCalla lived in Ghana for a couple of years while her mother assisted refugees.
“I understood pan-Africanism, the slave trade, the social-political effects of that,” McCalla says. “Haiti is a case study of all those things converging. It’s the first independent Black nation in the world.”
Some of the songs take inspiration and lyrics from Radio Haiti’s longtime director Jean Dominique, who was assassinated at the station in 2000. The station shutdown in 2003, following a failed assassination attempt on his wife, Michele Montas.

The term “Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever” comes from an editorial by Dominique that said suppressing independent journalism wouldn’t hide the problems facing the nation or citizens’ unrest.
McCalla spoke to Montas, a journalist and former spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, while going through the archives and developing the work.
“She said there are so many people of your generation who are connected to Haiti who don’t know how they are Haitian,” McCalla says. “They know they are Haitian, but they don’t exactly understand it. They don’t understand Kreyol. They have to reach back. That’s up to your generation; you have to do this work in order for it to be possible for future generations.”

Music, dance and storytelling explores the history and importance of Radio Haiti and the work of journalists like Jean Dominique, but it also frames Haiti through McCalla’s perspective.
McCalla wrote the song “Vini We” about Montas and Dominque’s relationship.
“She was talking about how Jean would sometimes wake her up at 4 in the morning to get her to read an editorial he wanted to put up,” McCalla says. “People would say, ‘How can you handle this?’ She says, ‘Well, he made coffee.’ That’s so sweet. So I was imagining him waking her up at 4 in the morning and them reading these editorials and then watching the sun rise. ‘Veni we’ means ‘come see.’ I am saying, ‘Come see the sun rise.’”
It’s a sweet homage to their bond as well as a sense of hope about the new day.
The album weaves together songs about McCalla and Radio Haiti, sometimes working in snippets of recordings.
McCalla will preview the album at her set at 1:40 p.m. Friday, April 29, at Jazz Fest on the Sheraton New Orleans Fais Do-Do Stage. The set will feature the musicians who recorded the album and Haitian master drummer Markus Schwartz. The album’s official release is May 6, when McCalla will be in Miami, where she’s presenting her theater piece.

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