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Jazz Bonus: Leyla McCalla

There are more questions than answers about this new album by Leyla McCalla. What does democracy look like? Who is concerned ? How long can it last? Combining original compositions and traditional Haitian tunes with historic Radio Haiti broadcasts and contemporary interviews, this remarkable album by Leyla McCalla offers a sonic and immersive journey through half a century of racial, social and political unrest.

The performance of Leyla McCalla are captivating, fueled by sophisticated melodic work on Afro-Caribbean rhythms. The juxtaposition of voices – English and Kreyòl, personal and political, anecdotal and journalistic – is equally compelling, raising the dead while shedding light on the enduring spirit of the Haitian people.

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The more I researched this project, the more I found myself examining my own relationship to Haiti. I spent a lot of time reminiscing about my visits to Haiti as a child, thinking deeply about the times in my life when I felt very Haitian and the times when I didn’t. Ultimately, the music and stories here all led me to a more nuanced understanding of the country and of myself..”

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Leyla McCalla, Langston Hughes in roots version

Leyla McCalla is not just a detached observer; she writes with great insight and introspection, grappling with memory, identity, and her own experiences as a Haitian-American woman, unraveling layers of marginalization and generations of repression and resolve, in search of a clearer vision of herself and her role as an artist. The result is both radical work and performance art, historical knowledge intertwined with personal memoirs, a vast and powerful meditation on family, democracy and freedom of expression, which could not have happened at one time. more timely.

Haiti has always been considered a distant place. But we are much 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, the country symbolizes injustice and oppression in the world. When we talk about Black Lives Matter, Haiti also represents this movement.”

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Leyla McCalla I “A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey” by Leyla McCalla and her musicians

Born in New York City to a couple of Haitian emigrants and activists, Leyla McCalla developed an early fascination with Haiti and its culture, thanks in part to time she spent with her grandmother as a child. After moving to Ghana for two years and later graduating, she eventually drifted south to New Orleans, where she wanted to make a living playing the cello on the streets of the French Quarter.

Her insistence on illuminating the black roots of American culture eventually led her to be part of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. After two years of touring and recording with the Grammy Award-winning band, she left to pursue her own career as a solo artist. In 2014, she aroused considerable enthusiasm with her critically acclaimed debut album, “Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes”, acclaimed by the New York Times and the press across the Atlantic. Two more equally celebrated albums followed, “A Day For The Hunter, A Day For The Prey” (2016) and “Capitalist Blues” (2019), to ever-increasing critical acclaim. In 2019 she joined Our Native Daughters, a collaborative project featuring Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and Allison Russell.

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Leyla McCalla trio at Jazz Under the Apple Trees

It was between these album releases and international tours that Leyla McCalla was approached for the first time by Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, to explore the archives of Radio Haiti. She began researching at Duke University, sifting through countless hours of broadcasts with the help of archivists and experts. What she uncovered was the extraordinary story of a radio station that resisted oppressive government regimes and political censorship in order to broadcast news, commentary and investigative journalism, at a time where it had deadly consequences. With the support and encouragement of Michèle Montas, the widow of Radio Haiti founder Jean Dominique, Leyla begins work on a play, incorporating musical performances with dance, video and archival material. On stage, she alternates between cello and banjo accompanied by a percussionist. Then she aspires to more complete arrangements with her group, and begins to record what will become the album with producer and engineer Kevin Ratterman (Preservation Hall Jazz Band, My Morning Jacket) in Los Angeles.

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Leyla McCalla, blues and cello days

The album functions as a fleshed-out soundtrack for the theatrical work“, explains Leyla McCalla. “The sound design and some of the archival pieces are different, but much of what you hear is taken from my creative experiences.”

The mix of musical performances and spoken word foreshadows much of the album. Although the record is filled with anger, it also contains a lot of bittersweet beauty. Leyla McCalla didn’t write “Breaking The Thermometer” to answer our questions about democracy; she wrote it to question our answers.
(excerpt from the press release)

To listen to on the show on Biréli Lagrène:
Biréli Lagrène, all alone, like a very big

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