There are more questions than answers on Leyla McCalla’s remarkable new album, Breaking The Thermometer. What does democracy look like? Who does it work for? How long can it last? On its surface, the record explores the legacy of Radio Haiti—Haiti’s first radio station to report the news in Haitian Kreyòl, the voice of the people—as well as the journalists who risked and lost their lives to broadcast it for nearly 50 years. But on a more fundamental level, the collection is a deeply personal reckoning with memory and identity, with the roles of artists and activists and immigrants in modern society, with the very notion of storytelling itself. In delving into the project, McCalla found herself forced to grapple with her own experiences as a Haitian-American woman, unraveling layers of marginalization and generations of repression and resolve as she searched for a clearer vision of herself and her purpose. The result is at once a work of radical performance art, historical scholarship, and personal memoir, a wide-ranging and powerful meditation on family and democracy and free expression that couldn’t have arrived at a more timely moment.
“The more I researched this project, the more I found myself examining my own sense of Haitian-ness,” McCalla reflects. “I spent a lot of time recalling my experiences visiting Haiti as a child, thinking deeply about the moments in my life when I felt very Haitian and the moments when I didn’t. In the end, the music and the stories here all brought me to a more nuanced understanding of both the country and myself.”
Born out of a multi-disciplinary theater project commissioned by Duke University, which acquired the complete Radio Haiti archives in 2016, Breaking The Thermometer combines original compositions and traditional Haitian tunes with historical broadcasts and contemporary interviews to forge an immersive sonic journey through a half century of racial, social, and political unrest. The music is captivating, fueled by rich, sophisticated melodic work and intoxicating Afro-Caribbean rhythms, and the juxtaposition of voices—English and Kreyòl, personal and political, anecdotal and journalistic—is similarly entrancing, raising the dead as it shines a light on the enduring spirit of the Haitian people. McCalla isn’t just some detached observer here, though; she writes with great insight and introspection, examining her own journey of growth and self-discovery as she uncovers the Radio Haiti story and the inextricable ties that bind us all to it.
“Haiti’s always seen as this far away place,” she says, “but we’re far more connected as Americans than we realize. Haiti was the first independent Black nation in the western hemisphere. Its very existence was and remains a threat to colonial power. At the same time, though, it symbolizes a lot about injustice and oppression around the world. When we talk about ‘Black Lives Matter,’ Haiti is a huge part of that.”
Born in New York City to a pair of Haitian emigrants and activists, McCalla developed an early fascination with the country and its culture thanks in part to the time she spent visiting her grandmother there as a child. After moving to Ghana for two years and later graduating from NYU, McCalla eventually drifted south to New Orleans, where she planned to make a living playing cello on the streets of the French Quarter.
“At the time, I didn’t realize how deep the Haitian roots of New Orleans ran,” she explains, “but I very quickly found myself diving into all the cultural and historical connections. And then once I picked up the tenor banjo, I started researching Haitian folks songs, as well, and I was amazed to discover this incredibly rich banjo tradition, which led me to travel back to Haiti again in 2013.”