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Mardi Gras Mix: Documentary Trumpets New Orleans' — And America's — Debt To Haiti

Krewe du Kanaval in New Orleans.
Gason Ayisyin
Courtesy of the photographer
Krewe du Kanaval in New Orleans.

On Mardi Gras, 'Kanaval' host Leyla McCalla talks about the rich cultural connection between New Orleans music — meaning, really, American music — and Haiti.

In honor of Mardi Gras, we're revisiting a look at the musical bond between New Orleans and Haiti. We first aired this story in 2021

Today – that is, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021 – has a lot of names. In English, it's Shrove Tuesday. In Portuguese, Carnaval. In French, Mardi Gras — Fat Tuesday.

With the exception of this pandemic year, of course, few places celebrate it fatter than New Orleans, with floats rolling, dancers stomping, beads flying and horns blaring.

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Many people don't realize, though, how much that New Orleans culture owes to Haitian culture – like the popular Mardi Gras song “Iko Iko,” which musicologists say has roots in Haiti.

That connection comes alive in a new radio documentary called “Kanaval: Haitian Rhythms and the Music of New Orleans,” produced by Philadelphia public radio station WXPN and airing here on WLRN this month.

“Kanaval” is hosted by Haitian-American, Grammy Award-winning musician Leyla McCalla. From New Orleans, where she lives, McCalla spoke with WLRN’s Tim Padgett about the documentary — and how much her own experience reflects its story.

Here are excerpts from their conversation:

WLRN: How did you and a Philadelphia NPR station hook up to make a documentary about the rich musical bond between New Orleans and Haiti?

MCCALLA: I had been working on a multimedia performance called “Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever,” which was inspired by the story of Radio Haiti. My family is from Haiti; my parents immigrated to the United States during the Duvalier regime. And so I'm always kind of reaching back and trying to understand the history and the culture.

We got to present the performance piece in March, and the folks at WXPN saw it, and they told me they were doing a radio documentary all about New Orleans-and-Haiti cultural exchange. And they interviewed me for it — and then came back a few months later and said, actually, we think you'd be great as a host.

You certainly seem a natural choice given your Haitian and New Orleans ties. But you were born and raised in New York. How did you gravitate to New Orleans?

I think in 2009, it was around Jazz Fest time. I was invited to play in the street there and busk with these women that I had met in New York City who played in New Orleans’ French Quarter. I had just graduated with a degree in classical cello performance, and I was wanting to explore other styles of music and explore things that felt meaningful to me…

Leyla McCalla on the cover of her album "Vari-Colored Songs: a Tribute to Langston Hughes"
Tim Duffy
Music Maker
Leyla McCalla on the cover of her album "Vari-Colored Songs: a Tribute to Langston Hughes"

Right, in the “Kanaval” documentary you say something that speaks to that: “But it wasn't until I moved to New Orleans in my 20s that I realized that Creole is more than a language. It’s an identity.” Creole being the language of Haiti along with French — but something much larger, as you discovered in New Orleans.

Absolutely. Being in New York was like, OK, I'm Black. But in New Orleans, someone one day just came up to me and said, “Girl, you look like a Creole.” And, you know, I remember the first time I had red beans and rice in New Orleans and I’m thinking, this looks exactly like sos poi in Haiti. And so I started to put the connections together.

And as you point out in the documentary, the musical connection started more than 200 years ago when Haitians began pouring into the Crescent City, as New Orleans is known, at the same time Haiti was winning its independence. Tell us more about that.

At the time of the Haitian revolution, there was a lot of, obviously, unrest. And Louisiana was a French territory and provided safe haven to a lot of White plantation owners, slave owners, but also free people of color and enslaved people. The influx of all of these émigrés from Haiti doubled the population of New Orleans.

READ MORE: 'Black Superhero': Toussaint Louverture Biography an 'Opening' to Historic Haiti Revolt

New Orleans was one of the only places you could practice your African spirituality. And that's how we have Congo Square in New Orleans. That's really where New Orleans music comes from, the rhythmic structures; the style of dance, for example, like the Calinda.

I remember thinking: Cap-Haïtien looks like the French Quarter. Or wait a minute, does the French Quarter look like Cap-Haïtien? There's a conversation that has clearly happened between these places that nobody talks about.
Leyla McCalla

And that Haitian, vodou-inspired music is featured in the documentary, like the song “Azouke Legba.” So, Leyla, can we say that Haitian infusion of the 19th century helped give rise to New Orleans jazz at the turn of the 20th century?

I have zero doubt. I, for example, started playing the banjo while playing New Orleans jazz — and there were definitely banjos at Congo Square. And actually, the first banjo found in the Western Hemisphere was found in Haiti.


Let's switch back to Haiti then. In “Kanaval,” you talk about how a visit to the coastal city of Cap-Haïtien confirmed for you that cross pollination between New Orleans and Haiti. You say:

“I'll never forget going to Cap-Haïtien for the first time. It's a beautiful coastal city in the north of Haiti, where colorful façades feature arched doors and overhanging balconies. I remember thinking: This looks like the French Quarter. Or wait a minute, does the French Quarter look like Cap-Haïtien?"

Right. And that's where I found also people were carrying banjos around — and I had never seen that in Haiti before. I started to sense there's just a conversation that has clearly happened between these places that nobody talks about.

The “Kanaval” soundtrackis a really eclectic delight. What song on the playlist best exemplifies for you that musical conversation between Haiti and New Orleans?

I’d say “Iko Kreyòl.” I really love the collaboration between Lakou Misik and Arcade Fire and the 79rs Gang.

The Haitian roots music band Lakou Misik on their album "HaitiaNola" that features the musical ties between Haiti and New Orleans.
The Haitian roots music band Lakou Misik on their album "HaitiaNola" that features the musical ties between Haiti and New Orleans.

And you perform a Haitian folk song I particularly enjoyed: “Mèsi Bondye.” It’s lovely.

Thank you.

The songs you write — such as those from your recent recording project “Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes” — also explore those ties between Haitian and New Orleans culture. But given what an exalted place New Orleans has in America’s musical heart, I should really say the ties between Haitian and American culture, right?

Yes, that part of it goes very much under the radar and very under-appreciated. I think it’s important for Black Americans to understand the Haitian contribution to their culture — but it’s not more important for Black Americans to understand Haitian culture than it is for White Americans or any other American.

I do hope people will realize after listening to “Kanaval” that New Orleans wouldn’t be New Orleans without the influence of Haiti — and without the influence of its undeniable Blackness. But America is having a spiritual crisis today, and I think Americans can look to Haitian history and culture and learn some beautiful things — apart from the tragedies the media always focus on in Haiti — and be better for it. I hope that the documentary can be the gateway for people to wanting to know more about Haiti.

The three-part WXPN radio documentary “Kanaval: Haitian Rhythms and the Music of New Orleans” will air on WLRN Feb. 22, 23 and 24 at 9:30 p.m.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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