Born in New-York and based in New Orleans, folk singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Leyla McCalla is the daughter of Haitian parents who emigrated to the US in the 1960s. In other words, Haiti and Haitian culture have always been a grounding presence throughout her discography to date. Her three previous solo albums Vari-Colored Songs, A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey and Capitalist Blues all feature traditional creole songs and rhythms from the Caribbean Island.
Based on archival material from the defunct Radio Haiti-Inter which ceased broadcasting in 2003, Leyla McCalla’s new opus Breaking the Thermometer (Anti Records – May 2022) sees the singer combine collective and personal family memories with historical events that took place in Haiti in the last three decades of the 20th century.
Founded in the late 1950s, Radio Haiti was the first independent radio station on the island to broadcast a mix of local and international news in Haitian Creole. In the early 1970s, journalist and human rights activist Jean Dominique purchased the lease to the radio station which was then renamed Radio Haiti-Inter. Channelling the opinion of ordinary Haitian people, rural famers and grassroots activists, the radio station increasingly turned into a dissenting voice during the Jean Claude Duvalier dictatorship and the unstable political years that followed. Threatened or forced into exile several times (as illustrated in the moving instrumental “Ekzile”), the journalist was assassinated in 2000. Yet, the radio station continued broadcasting for another three years with his wife Michèle Montas at the helm before winding up for good. The voices of Jean Dominique and Michèle Montas are heard throughout the record, including in the short “Jean and Michèle” audio collage.
Duke University in Durham, North Carolina eventually acquired the archives of Radio Haiti-Inter and got in touch with Leyla McCalla with the view of creating a piece that would blend the archival material with songs and dance performances. Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever was originally born as a multimedia stage performance involving live music, choreography as well as sound and video projection design. Derived from a Jean Dominique quote, the titular “thermometer” becomes a metaphor for the independent broadcast and print media. Impeding their work through censorship for instance will not hide or get rid of the political and economic symptoms.
As the project developed, it became clear that the digital repository also charted a more personal family history for Leyla McCalla whereby certain audio snippets or pictures triggered family memories (“Memory Song”) and even forgotten conversations with her mother and grandmother.
Premiered at Duke University on 4 march 2020, the original stripped-down stage production featured Leyla McCalla on vocals, cello, tenor banjo and guitar accompanied by drums and percussions. Playing like the soundtrack to the stage show, Breaking the Thermometer as the studio recording version includes a wider range of instruments as well as guest vocalist Melissa Laveaux on “Pouki”.
With Leyla McCalla on cello, the record opens with a beautiful rendition of “Nan Fon Bwa”, an instrumental piece originally written for classical guitar by Haitian-born composer Frantz Casseus. The latter spent most of his life in the US teaching guitar and counted Marc Ribot as one of his students. A new composition, the lyrics of “Fort Dimanche” are based on news reports and testimonials of survivors of one of the notorious Duvalier regime’s political prisons (Fort Dimanche). “M’ale nan peyi san chapo” / I am going to the land of no hats – I am going to die in this prison.
“Le Bal est Fini” is also a reference to the wording of an official government ruling published in October 1980 stating that the “the party is over”, thus declaring a crackdown on dissenting voices in the press, political parties, unions and activist groups while “Dodinin” is a traditional call to revolution.
A song like “You Don’t Know Me”, a cover from a Caetano Veloso original, also sets Haiti’s struggle for a free and democratic regime in the context similar resistance movements in other non-western countries from the Global South in the recent past. A leading figure of the Tropicália movement in Brazil, Caetano Veloso was also forced into exile between 1969 to 1972.
A multidisciplinary and original concept, Breaking the Thermometer firmly draws attention to the crucial role of journalists, storytellers, immigrants and activists in modern society. “Memories of Haiti come to me in waves” notes the singer. It is therefore fitting that archival radio waves provide the common thread to a fascinating immersive and self-reflective journey into Haitian culture, memory and identity.