From Haiti With Love: McCalla brings her roots to Roots on the Avenue

From Haiti With Love: McCalla brings her roots to Roots on the Avenue

Leyla McCalla opens her album “Breaking the Thermometer” literally searching for answers. In a recorded conversation with her mother, the cellist questions her memories of Haiti when she was a child over a cello-plucked refrain based on the Haitian folk song, “Nan Fon Bwa” (also the title of the opener). At the end of her conversation, her mother tells her that after a one trip, McCalla began to identify more as Haitian. At this point, she repeats the rhythm with her bow, blending not just the sounds but memory and identity.

“This project has kind of forced me to reckon with my Haitian-ness and my American-ness,” McCalla says. “I found myself kind of researching a lot of the intertwined cultural connections between the two places. Obviously, I’ve been navigating my identity my entire life, but this shed a lot of light for me on my own experiences.”

The journey of sound and stories on her third solo album has changed McCalla’s entire outlook and brought her closer to herself. She was a member of the Grammy-winning string band Carolina Chocolate Drops and part of Our Native Daughters. While juggling group and solo performances as well as the release of her 2019 album, “Capitalist Blues,” she was tapped for a project by Duke University to create a theater piece based on the Radio Haiti archives — the first radio station in Haiti to report news in Haitian Kreyol. The archives contain a 50-year history of news, commentary and investigative reporting done at a time when doing so came with deadly consequences. While pouring through the archives, McCalla also found full albums of traditional Haitian folk music and supplemented her research with additional interviews with people close the to the material.

The child of human rights activists who emigrated to the U.S. during Haiti’s Duvalier Regime, McCalla brought a unique perspective to the project.

“My father ran an organization called the National Coalition for Haitian Rights that, when I was 15 years old, hosted a viewing of the Jonathan Demme film, ‘The Agronomist,’ about John Dominique, who was the owner of Radio Haiti who was assassinated in the year 2000. And so that was the first time I think that Radio Haiti had come into my consciousness.” At the time, she also met Dominque’s widow, Michèle Montas, a journalist who co-directed the station even after his death.

While working on the project, McCalla says, “I remember confessing to Michèle that I wasn’t really sure I should be the one to tell this story. I was born in America, after all, and I’m an artist, not an academic. But Michèle said, ‘Why wouldn’t you be the one to tell this story? There are so many Haitian-Americans just like you who are still attached to the country in some way, who are still looking for their roots. This is exactly what you need to be doing.’”

The theater piece, “Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever,” incorporated video, music, sound design and dance with a reserved soundtrack. For her release spurred by the theater project, McCalla expanded the sounds into an album with a full band, some original compositions and other songs that fit the theme of the project.

“There were times during broadcast where they would just play a whole album. And I fell in love with a lot of albums that way,” she explains.

The album contains elements of psychedelia, Haitian roots and folk music along with interviews and found sounds from the archives. McCalla sings in several languages, including Haitian Kreyol, which she began learning during this project.

The album also includes a cover of Caetano Veloso’s “You Don’t Know Me.”

“He is one of the artists that kind of fomented the Tropicalismo movement in Brazil, where they were mixing American sounds and Brazilian traditional rhythms,” McCalla explains. “During the pandemic, I really fell in love with his album, ‘Transa,’ which is an album composed during the during a regime in Brazil where he was exiled.

“I found so much of [‘You Don’t Know Me’] to be so closely related to what was happening in Haiti in the ’80s, where journalists were being exiled to the United States or to Venezuela. And what that experience was like for them,” McCalla says.

She constructs another song on the album, “Fort Dimache,” based on the research and stories unearthed from the archives themselves.

“That’s a song that I wrote, based on a testimonial of one of their survivors of Fort Dimache, which was a very notorious prison in Haiti during the Duvalier regime,” she explains. “Some of those sounds that you’re hearing are from the archive. And some of them are from other interviews with Michèle Montas.” Another take on a traditional, “Dan Reken” contains a poem read by assassinated journalist, Richard Brisson. She also includes songs such as “Vini We,” which is a tender recounting of the love between Montas and Dominique.

“I feel like this is kind of like what becoming a mother was like for me. I remember when I gave birth to my first daughter, Delilah, I felt like I stepped into a portal,” McCalla says with a laugh. “And I could never go back to what I was before. And I’m having that same feeling with this record. I’m just like, wow, I can’t go back to what I was, I can’t see things or hear things in the way that I did before. And of course, I’m still me. But I’m very curious what that will mean for my work.

“I’ve been working on this on this project since 2017. And I think I just want to experiment more with sound. And be more fearless in that way, in the future, if anything. But I don’t know what that means, you know? At the end of the day, I’m a folk singer. And that’s always going to be, I think, a part of my work, even if it doesn’t sell.”



Roots on the Avenue:

Leyla McCalla

WHEN — June 18

WHERE — South East Avenue right outside the Roots HQ in Fayetteville

COST — $55 for a Saturday only pass


Categories: Music