Growing up in New Jersey, Leyla McCalla found her way to the cello, her first instrument, through one of those unscripted moments that change a life.
In fourth grade, she was required to participate in the school’s music program. Her plan was to choose something in the woodwind family, maybe the piccolo.
“And the first day of fourth grade, I go into the cafeteria, and they have the percussion and the woodwinds and the brass and the strings, and I march right up to the woodwind table,” she told an interviewer. “I hear this woman screaming across the room, ‘Leyla McCalla!’ And I turned around and she just said, ”Cello.’ That was the first time I had laid my eyes on it. I was like, whoa, the cello’s a huge violin — I had no idea! And because it wasn’t the popular instrument, I kind of got stuck playing it.”
That choice defined her early life. She was a Haitian American, a Black female, and a cello player in a youth orchestra, something she says both marginalized her and made her a token.
That background — her parents are Haitian emigrants who were human rights activists — and her experiences have formed the foundation of her songwriting.
Her fourth-grade choice launched a career. She studied music at New York University, then moved to New Orleans. As a green performer, she found a mentor in Rhiannon Giddens and joined the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Later, Giddens invited her into Our Native Daughters with two other Black female banjo players, Amythyst Kiah, and Allison Russell. Russell, who played the Virginia Arts Festival last year, broke out with her stirring solo debut, “Outside Child,” which chronicles her abusive childhood and living on the streets of the city, but ultimately rises above, sharing her deliverance and redemption.
McCalla’s latest, “Breaking the Thermometer,” also examines another past horror. It springs from a commission by Duke University to collaborate on a project based on their recently acquired archive of Radio Haiti, the country’s first independent radio station that promoted democracy during decades of oppression.
The album weaves McCalla’s memories with the history of Haiti told in those archives, including stories built from those broadcasts. She became close with Michèle Montas, the widow of the station’s owner, Jean Dominique, who was murdered on his way to work in 2000. His killers were never found.
But she also had a deep family connection. “My father in particular has relationships with some of the people that I’ve been listening to in the archives and that has informed my perspective on Haiti,” she said.
She wrote the songs with the background of the detentions, attacks on the free press, and disinformation in the United States in recent years. “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,” she told a British newspaper. “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, the same organization that is telling us how to navigate the pandemic, told us that Aids was caused by hemophilia, 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?”
She mixes Creole with English throughout the album. “Fort Dimanche,” features her lyrics and archival audio to describe the infamous political prison used by the regime of Francois Duvalier to interrogate, torture, and execute suspected dissidents. “Ekzile” recounts Montas’ memories of fleeing the country. The urgent, catchy “Dodinin,” has a somber message about the working poor. She learned the song from a Smithsonian Folkways recording. It was performed by the Artistes Independant, Haitian musicians who were living in exile in New York.
Smithsonian Folkways is the label that released “Our Native Daughters.” Giddens formed the supergroup of Black women folksingers to reimagine and interpret traditional music. But that soon changed as they shifted to writing original songs like “Black Myself” and “I Knew I Could Fly,” which McCalla wrote with Russell. The songs on the album tell the stories of the enslaved, of sexual abuse, and ultimately of survival.
The theme of powerfully showing the experience of Black women and the historically oppressed runs throughout her work.
“We have not been able to hide who we are for our whole lives, and it’s time for us all to stop hiding under this false pretense that the playing field is level, because it’s not and there are specific reasons why it’s not,” she said after “Our Native Daughters” was released.
“And it dates back to the founding of our country and the idea of who is human and who is not fully human. And to think about the economic reality of how this country has built its wealth. It would not have happened this way without the slave trade, and not just in this country, but all throughout Western Europe. You see devastated economies throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, and that didn’t come out of a vacuum either. So I think it’s more about how do we have an honest conversation where we are unapologetically Black, unapologetically ourselves and where we are seizing this moment that we are in.”