‘We’ve been offered a myopic view of history’: folk singer Leyla McCalla untangles Haiti’s complex roots

Leyla McCalla’s memories of Haiti fall somewhere in the hazy space between dream and reality, in the way so many childhood recollections do. She can still hear the goats that would gather outside her grandmother’s house, where she came to visit from New York as a kid, or the drums and the gunshots that would ring out at night, in and out of sync. There were rabbits, lovebirds, roosters and guinea pigs – “a Noah’s ark of Haitian birds and small animals” as McCalla, now 36, puts it, while sitting upstairs at a Nashville coffee shop in late March. Then there was the time her mother was bitten in the breast by an aggressive horse.

“My mother told me later that my grandmother said that horse was a man,” McCalla says, laughing. “Because in Haitian spirituality, nothing is as it seems. My mother asked her, ‘Why would you think that horse was a man?’ And my grandmother said, ‘Why else would it bite you in the breast?’”

It was one in a series of moments that helped the virtuosic multi-instrumentalist, singer and member of roots supergroup Our Native Daughters understand Haiti – its rich spirituality and traditions, its beauty, and the ugliness in its inequities and bloodshed. McCalla, who was born in New York to Haitian emigres, came home that summer, 10 years old, and told her mother that she identified as Haitian above all. Like many of her recollections, it was a conversation she didn’t remember until her mother reminded her of it. A recording of their recent talk, along with the sounds of roosters, birds, rolling Caribbean waves and lush, complex instrumentation make up her beautiful new album Breaking the Thermometer. It was originally based around a stage production of the same name and evokes a misunderstood place through plucked cello, immersive compositions, lyrics that dance between English and Kreyòl, and animal calls that McCalla found online.

Breaking the Thermometer is based in part on McCalla’s own experiences in Haiti, but the bulk of the storytelling is centred on her journey into the archives of Radio Haiti, the first station to report news in Kreyòl and a cornerstone of the nation’s democratic fight in the 1960s against the oppressive Duvalier regime, an authoritarian state thought to have killed tens of thousands of people in an attempt to maintain power. Using new interviews and archival materials from Radio Haiti, Breaking the Thermometer tells a story about freedom of the press, the undying fight for truth and how citizens – armed with just a pen or a microphone – can help work towards democracy, a story that resonates through the Trump administration to the war in Ukraine.

It also draws attention to a place that is often deeply misunderstood. “Haiti has been so disparaged and so ostracised culturally and socially and politically,” she says. “Its sovereignty has always been in question since its inception. So how do you undo that while also acknowledging the painful, ugly things that have been perpetuated? You look at a place like Haiti, or even Russia or Ukraine [as if they are] so far away from us. We have no nuanced sense of place.”

The record interweaves McCalla’s memories with the collective memory and history of Haiti as told through Radio Haiti, including stories pulled from original broadcasts. She spent hours in the station’s archives at Duke University in North Carolina, and became close with Michèle Montas, widow of the station’s owner, Jean Dominique, who was murdered on his way to work. His killers were never found (attempts were also made on Montas’ life, one killing her bodyguard). Their relationship adds another layer to Breaking the Thermometer. “A big part of their connection and their love for each other was their love for journalism and their vision for what this could do to transform their country,” McCalla says. “It’s a really hard thing to have faith in, but that faith held them together.” She laughs. “I want that!”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s an album that also has roots in the Trump presidency: Breaking the Thermometer was influenced by McCalla’s observations of how his policies were affecting Americans, particularly Black Americans and immigrants – but also how they were not without historical precedent.

“Freedom of the press, issues of censorship, crackdowns on protests, all of these things were factoring really strongly into my thinking about how to frame this story,” says McCalla, who is based in New Orleans. “And there was a lot of outcry about the detention of children and families, but no one talks about how we’ve been doing that since the 80s. Or how the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], the same organisation that is telling us how to navigate the pandemic, told us that Aids was caused by haemophilia, heroin, homosexuals and Haitians. Maybe it’s just been shock and awe for so long that we just forget, but it brings a lot up for me in terms of: how much has actually changed?”

Amplifying the unheard is a cornerstone of McCalla’s work, and a resonant theme given the context of our meeting. McCalla is in Nashville for a production of her 2014 album Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes at the National Museum of African American Music. The city represents an industry built from whitewashing roots music and marginalising Black creators: a state of affairs that many in the genre fight dearly to preserve, while others, such as McCalla, are attempting to stage radical interventions. “I was listening to commercial country music travelling through Tennessee,” says McCalla of her journey to the city today. “And it was so much Auto-Tune and twangs and so many stereotypes. I thought, I don’t relate to this. And I think so many people don’t.”

From a young age, McCalla knew she would make work to fill that void. As a Black female cello player in a youth orchestra, she was “marginalised and tokenised” all at once. It didn’t deter her, and she went on to study music at New York University. Soon after, she moved to New Orleans and joined seminal Black string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops. She and fellow Chocolate Drops member Rhiannon Giddens later formed another collective, Our Native Daughters, which centres on the Black origins of folk and string band music, and highlights the banjo’s origins in Africa (Amythyst Kiah and Allison Russell complete the quartet).

“It’s been extremely uplifting to be a part of that kind of collective,” McCalla says. “To validate and lift each other up has been a huge thing. I started touring with Rhiannon when I was really green and hadn’t released any albums, and I feel like it gave me the chance to do what I am doing now. Being in the Chocolate Drops legitimised my sense of what I already wanted to do and how I could work in the world: to be able to traverse the music industry and still make work that is super meaningful.”

Although Breaking the Thermometer tells stories of Fort Dimanche, where political prisoners were tortured and killed, as well as journalists who were assassinated or persecuted in their fight to bring truth to the Haitian people, it is full of hope: “Let the light shine in, let a new day begin,” she sings on You Don’t Know Me, an adaptation of a song by Brazilian composer Caetano Veloso. “I’ve never been someone who’s like, ‘Music is gonna change the world,’” McCalla says. “It’s not just single-handedly music. But [music reflects] the way that people think, the things that people are attached to, the passion that people have for wanting to see positive change.”

Breaking the Thermometer is a true culmination of this vision – and it’s also nowhere near the end. Like the reporters she sings about, McCalla will keep asking questions. “We’ve been offered a very myopic view of history,” she says. “And I think we have a long way to go. But it is changing, and I’m curious what it will be like when we are grandmas.” She laughs again, as she often does when the tension needs to break – as if she’s composing a piece of music in real time. “My goal,” she adds, “is to be an old person one day.”

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