In Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever, an evening-length performance that premiered at Duke University just before the pandemic shut down theaters, the Haitian-American folk-classical singer and cellist Leyla McCalla used stories, dance, videos, audio from Duke’s archives, her own songs, and arrangements of Haitian standards to immortalize Radio Haiti-Inter, the country’s first privately owned Creole-language station. Its owner, a crusader for the marginalized poor against state corruption named Jean Dominique, was gunned down in 2000, a case that remains unsolved.
A fertile blend of specific reporting and allegorical resonance, Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever honors Dominique and other activists by giving voice to the voiceless they work for. As the scion of prominent Haitian rights activists and radical journalists, McCalla was well prepared to tell this story. As an acclaimed musician, she was prepared to tell it in a way that brought history out of books and into the realm of the senses.
McCalla first came to fame in the new-day old-time string band Carolina Chocolate Drops before leaving to make her own albums. Vari-Colored Songs won acclaim by turning the Cajun music of McCalla’s adopted home into settings for the poems of Langston Hughes, while Capitalist Blues was a large-scale work that tapped into her socialist lineage. She also has her Leyla McCalla Quartet, and she’s a member of Our Native Daughters, the banjo-based supergroup with Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, and Allison Russell. At Big Ears, McCalla presents songs from Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever, stripped back to their cores of cello, banjo, and voice.