Photo by Noé Cugny

Cellist Leyla McCalla may have been born in New York City and now lives in New Orleans, but the history of Haiti — the first independent Black nation in the Western Hemisphere — looms large in her music. 

McCalla, a Haitian-American musician who has toured with groups like the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Our Native Daughters, plans to use her Spoleto Festival USA debut to spotlight her new album, Breaking the Thermometer. It was inspired by the archives of the radio station Radio Haiti, she said in an interview.

Her goal to spread awareness on behalf of the voiceless everywhere dovetails with that of Radio Haiti, the first station to report the news in Haitian Creole, the native language of most of the population. The station has a history of  “working under very tumultuous political conditions and political repression, with a lot of censorship of the press happening,” said McCalla. A result of the democratic and anti-corruption beliefs held not only by its owner, Jean Léopold Dominique, but also by the journalists who worked alongside him. 

McCalla is also inspired by poetry, which she uses throughout her performances. Her first record, Vari-Colored Songs: A tribute to Langston Hughes debuted in 2013. Hughes’s poetry has been very influential in her musical life and career. 

“The mission behind his work and and his actual words too — those are two things that I really kind of identified as something that made me want to compose and sing,” McCalla said.

CITY PAPER: Can you talk a bit about how your new album came to be?

LEYLA McCALLA: The journalists at Radio Haiti-Inter were fighting to be able to have conversations about what was really happening in the country at a time when I think a lot of people felt voiceless. So this album is about the intersection between politics and history in Haiti. That just feels like something that we should be talking about, you know? It feels like a promise that has yet to be fulfilled. 

CP: What was it like finding your sense of identity and bringing that into your music?

McCALLA: Well, I think identity is not always fixed. There’s kind of a continuum there. And I feel like Haiti is a place that teaches me a lot about myself and … should be examined as a part of Black history in general. I don’t feel that people are aware of the ways that Haiti has influenced the United States.

CP: How did you get involved with Spoleto?

McCALLA: Spoleto reached out, and I was very excited to have it all work out. I remember I had an album of concerts from the Spoleto Festival when I was in college and just learning about different classical composers. It’s a legendary festival, especially in the classical world, so to be able to come as someone who is steeped in the classical tradition but has departed from that creatively is super, super exciting and just validating.

CP:  Do you feel any pressure being surrounded by so many amazing performers and people who have been here before?

McCALLA: I think I’m pretty comfortable in my lane. I’m aware of what my goal is, in my performances, and it’s not to emulate anybody else. It’s really to just be my authentic self.

IF YOU WANT TO GO:  9 p.m., May 26, Cistern Yard, College of Charleston. Tickets can be purchased before the show here.

Aiyana Hardy is an arts journalism master’s degree student at Syracuse University.

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