Leyla McCalla Explores Radio Haiti On Riveting ‘Breaking the Thermometer’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

You know her name. Leyla McCalla was a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Our Native Daughters, groups that have spawned successful careers for Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, Amythyst Kiah, and Allison Russell. McCalla’s previous solo effort was the politically charged 2019 Capitalist Blues, which we covered on these pages. She is bilingual and sang some songs on that album in her Haitian Creole language, Kreyol. Now, with Breaking the Thermometer McCalla is more forcibly bringing her Haitian heritage to the forefront. 

The genesis for the project was a multi-disciplinary theater effort commissioned by Duke University, which acquitted the complete Radio Haiti archives in 2016. This album combines original compositions and traditional Haitian tunes with historical broadcasts and interviews to unravel a century of racial, social, and political unrest with rich music and Afro-Caribbean rhythms. The resilience of the Haitian people is remarkable and fairly well known but many likely do not realize that Haiti was the first independent Black nation in the western hemisphere. It’s long been a threat to colonial powers and continues to serve as a symbol of injustice and oppression centuries later. 

Opening with “Nan Fon Bwa” we hear the sound of ocean waves as songbirds chirp and roosters crow, bringing us to a bucolic island image of the country as McCalla plucks her cello while backed by Haitian percussionist Jeff Pierre. This is an adaptation of a folk tune she first heard performed by the guitarist Amos Coulange on a Radio Haiti broadcast. Soon, we hear the spoken words of McCalla exploring her childhood memories of Haiti with her mother, who reminds her, “When you went to Haiti for that summer…you came back saying you were Haitian. And before that, maybe you didn’t see yourself as any nationality. But certainly when you came back from that trip you started identifying more as being Haitian.” This is how she begins to integrate her own story with that of Radio Haiti. This mixing of spoken word with music continues throughout. 

The trancelike, banjo driven “Fort Dimanche,” for example, uses both original songwriting and archival audio to describe the infamous Fort Dimanche political prison used by the Duvalier regime to interrogate, torture, and execute suspected dissidents. The meditative “Ekzile” chronicles Montas’ recollections of being forced to flee her home country percussion; and the urgent “Dodinin,” gives voice to the pain and frustration of the working poor. “We are the ones who bake the bread and get burnt at the oven,” complains Dodinin. McCalla learned the song from old Smithsonian Folkways record and the band who performed it, the Artistes Independant, were all Haitian musicians who were living in exile in New York. Thus, it is emblematic of Haitian social dynamics from colonial times to our current times.

In “Arbonite” over bubbling percussion and chanting we hear the indelible refrain “Hold on to your skin, hold on to your power.” By the way, 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.

The album mixes Creole vocals with English, the latter in Caetano Veloso’s Brazilian song of exile “You Don’t Know Me,” one of several examples of beauty to offset the anger and angst. The languid “Vini We” mixes the sounds of daily life on the island with a tender recounting of the love affair between Dominique and Montas, while the dreamy “Memory Song” reaches back through generations of ancestral trauma, linking the past to the present. Again though, there are startling refrains as she sings over a droning guitar, “How much does a memory weigh?” “What’s the price our bodies will pay?” She closes the album with the yearning “Boukman’s Prayer,” ending on a more hopeful note.

We may look at this as McCalla’s personal crusade to shed light on the many injustices wrought on the Haitian people while praising their steadfast resilience. She could also be asking us to take broader view. Regimes are fragile and we’re increasingly learning how fragile our own democracy is. Radio Haiti was a trusted media source for the downtrodden and oppressed. Sadly, trusted media outlets are almost extinct here in America too. If we can’t find answers in this story, then we should at least heed its lessons. 

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