Album Review: Leyla McCalla, ‘Breaking the Thermometer’

Leyla McCalla’s new album, Breaking the Thermometer, unfolds cinematically with good reason. It grew out of a theater project—Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever—that was commissioned by Duke University and dives deep into the archives of Radio Haiti, the first radio station in Haiti to broadcast in the Kreyòl language.

McCalla weaves broadcasts and recordings from these journalists into her songs, allowing these speakers to tell their own stories of the risks they took to be the voice of democracy in Haiti. The songs on Breaking the Thermometer glide easily from English to French to Kreyòl, implicitly acknowledging the way that language creates identity and is bound to political contexts.

McCalla probes the fraught social and political history of Haiti as well as her own relationship with the country. Her music sweeps through the countryside and urban alleys of Haiti, hovering over the stories of Radio Haiti’s founders and journalists. McCalla brings an eye for the colorful and vibrant scenes she recalls from her childhood visits, plus an ear for the multi-layered voices of community and the sounds echoing in Haiti’s neighborhoods.

On the opener, “Nan Fon Bwa,” her gently stroked cello lies under these found sounds, creating a melancholy  longing. As the song evolves, the cello becomes more vigorous and sprightly by turns. It is fueled by Shawn Myers’ percussion and evokes the emotional interplay of anger, joy, and hope.

Her bright banjo rolls belie the darkness of “Fort Dimanche,” the political prison where the Duvalier regime tortured and executed dissidents. The banjo and vocals ride over Radio Haiti archival reports, wherein the sinister purposes of the prison are revealed.

Vini Wè” opens with birds singing and a rooster crowing, creating an idyllic setting for this languorous, unfurling love song. Lilting guitar lines and shuffling percussion support McCalla’s exquisite vocals. The dreamy texture of “You Don’t Know Me” is reminiscent of the warp and woof of fragments of Jimi Hendrix riffs; psychedelic jazz; and Danny Kirwan’s guitar on Fleetwood Mac’s Bare Trees. At its climax, the song packs a rushing clatter of controlled sound waves that mimic defiance and revelation.

McCalla’s droning, sad cello introduces “Ekzile,” providing a background for a recording of Radio Haiti’s Michéle Montas as she recalls the experience of being forced to leave her home. On the final track, “Memory Song,” a gently picked guitar floats over shuffling percussion, creating an atmospheric setting that explores the sensuality of  memory, how memory persists in the body and in physical settings.

With Breaking the Thermometer, McCalla has created a symphonic ode to Radio Haiti and its legacy, as well as the everyday struggles of Haitians as they attempt to maintain political equilibrium and simply survive another day.


Breaking the Thermometer is available HERE.


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