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Leyla McCalla: Tiny Desk Concert

"How much does a memory weigh?" Leyla McCalla sings halfway through her Tiny Desk performance in a voice that feels like it's floating in water – swimming, drowning, escaping, returning home – as it intertwines with the seaweed lines of Nahum Zdybel's guitar. That question, from her ballad "Memory Song," is central to the music she and her band offer in this sparkling, thoughtful set. This music originated within McCalla's theater piece about independent station Radio Haiti, Breaking the Thermometer To Hide the Fever, which she transformed into one of 2022's most compelling albums. From the driving, danceable call to revolution "Dodinin" to "Nan Fon Bwa," written by renowned guitarist Frantz Casseus and now a showcase for McCalla's funky cello work, she and her band — all players deeply immersed in Haiti's rhythms and songlines — enact a historical journey that honors a nation born in revolution and still fighting, despite unfathomable hardship, today.

McCalla's parents immigrated to New York as kids, during François Duvalier's murderous regime. "I've been curious about that period in their lives and Haitian history for a long time," she says, introducing "Fort Dimanche," which samples an interview conducted by Radio Haiti's cofounder Michèle Montas about life within the country's most notoriously brutal prison. The song begins quietly, led by McCalla's circular banjo lines, then builds a dream of freedom through the rhythms of Markus Schwartz's congas and Pete Olyinciw's bowed and plucked upright bass. Memory's shape is latticework, delicate and non-linear, and McCalla's songs honor its partial revelations with the grace of deep attention.

SET LIST

  • Dodinin
  • Memory Song
  • Fort Dimanche
  • Nan Fon Bwa
  • MUSICIANS

  • Leyla McCalla - vocals, cello, banjo, electric guitar
  • Pete Olynciw - upright bass
  • Shawn Myers - drums
  • Nahum Zdybel - electric guitar
  • Markus Schwartz - Congas
  • TINY DESK TEAM

  • Producer: Bob Boilen
  • Director/Editor: Joshua Bryant
  • Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin
  • Series Producer: Bobby Carter
  • Videographers: Kara Frame, Joshua Bryant, Maia Stern
  • Audio Assistant: Natasha Branch
  • Production Assistant: Jill Britton
  • Tiny Desk Team: Suraya Mohamed, Marissa Lorusso, Hazel Cills, Ashley Pointer
  • VP, Visuals and Music: Keith Jenkins
  • Senior VP, Programming: Anya Grundmann
  • Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.