Leyla McCalla

REVIEW: Leyla McCalla “Breaking the Thermometer”


Leyla McCalla — Breaking the Thermometer

We don’t truly understand the concept of free speech, and the limits put upon it, in the US. Not really. The minor inconvenience of, say, your Twitter account being suspended for 12 hours isn’t quite the same as being assassinated at your own radio station for daring to speak the truth. That story – the killing of Radio Haiti owner Jean Dominique and his security guard Jean-Claude Louissant – is part of Haitian-American musician Leyla McCalla’s theater piece “Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever.” One result of that longer project is McCalla’s new album, “Breaking the Thermometer,” which explores both the history of Haiti and her place as an American coming to terms with her roots.

In her work with Carolina Chocolate Drops and Our Native Daughters, McCalla’s always been open to discussing underserved topics. But her own heritage required some research and a bit of personal reckoning. The album, in fact, begins with “Nan Fon Bwa,” featuring a phone call between McCalla and her mother recalling traveling to Haiti as a youth and McCalla’s grandmother being “militant about being proud to be Haitian.” The conversation is backed by McCalla’s work on cello (plucked and bowed) and Jeff Pierre playing tanbou, a Haitian drum. “Fort Dimanche” features McCalla playing banjo and singing in Kreyol, a French-based vernacular, and includes a Radio Haiti interview (one of several on the record) on the Duvalier-era prison where dissidents were frequently “disappeared” to.

It’s pretty heavy stuff, but McCalla, like her Our Native Daughters bandmates, is able to make beautiful music out of terrible things. “Dan Reken” centers on her plaintive voice, along with some gorgeous guitar work. “Ekzile” relates the story of a fraught escape from Haiti to New York via Miami, with more beautiful cello. “Pouki,” a song by Haitian political artist Manno Charlemagne, features vocals from Haitian-Canadian Melissa Laveaux. And “Vini We” gets back to station owner Jean Dominique and his wife, fellow journalist Michele Montas, but it focuses on their own personal story – “They wonder why I love you/They wonder what I see/I’m here for you like you’re here for me.” Along with natural sounds of Haitian life and classical guitar work from Nahum Johnson Zdybel, the song humanizes a folk hero. In searching after her own story, Leyla McCalla has brought to life a large chunk of Haitian history and, more importantly, made the folks who lived through (and died through) that time relatable and singularly human. For those who can’t speak their piece, she uses her freedom of speech to give their stories a voice.

Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “You Don’t Know Me” – the song by Brazilian artist Caetano Veloso finds McCalla exploring her relationship with Haiti – “You don’t know me/Bet you’ll never get to know me” – and also happens to have a pretty kick-ass guitar solo. Turns out you can learn and rock out at the same time.

Breaking The Thermometer was produced, mixed and mastered by Kevin Ratterman. Additional musicians on the album include Shawn Myers (drums, percussion), Pete Olynciw (electric and upright bass), Jeff Pierre (tanbou), Nahum Johnson Zdybel (guitars) and Melissa Laveaux (vocals). 

Go here to order Breaking The Thermometer, released on May 6 to coincide with Haitian American Heritage Month: https://kingsroadmerch.com/anti-records/artist/889?ffm=FFM_c659b982a463354a5bf689d6f5001923

Check out tour dates here: https://leylamccalla.com/tour


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