Kanaval! will have you up off your feet in no time flat

WXPN project will explore Haiti’s influence on New Orleans’ music, culture and community

Win Butler of Arcade Fire, right, attends the Ti Mache ceremony in Congo Square during Arcade Fire’s Third Annual Krewe du Kanaval celebration on Feb. 14, 2020, in New Orleans. | Image: Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Philly’s own WXPN has launched a year-long project that explores and celebrates the influences of Haiti on New Orleans’ famed music, culture and community.

“Kanaval: Haitian Rhythms and the Music of New Orleans” is a compelling story that is being told through a content-rich website and a national radio documentary set to air in February during Black History Month, in addition to a series of special musical, theatrical and community events.

Distributed through NPR, the “Kanaval” audio docu-series ties the nation of Haiti and city of New Orleans through an historical perspective, focusing on the music that connects them. It is produced by Alex Lewis, an award-winning independent radio producer and musician whose projects include “Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio,” and WXPN’s “Gospel Roots of Rock and Soul,” among many other projects. WXPN Assistant Station Manager Bruce Warren and General Manager Roger LaMay are the project’s executive producers, and the series is hosted by New Orleans-based, Haitian-American singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Leyla McCalla, a founding member of Our Native Daughters and alumna of the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops.

In addition to the radio docu-series, newly-reported stories on Haiti’s cultural/music influences will air as part of WXPN’s NPR-syndicated program “World Cafe” and on New Orleans NPR member station WWNO-FM. 

Scheduled for May, the live theater event and Philadelphia premiere of “Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever” will be presented at Fringe Arts. Combining storytelling, video projection, archival audio, and dance, it is set to new music by McCalla, and directed by another New Orleans-based artist, Kiyoko McCrae. This performance recounts the legacy of Radio Inter-Haiti, the country’s first privately-owned, Creole-language radio station and the assassination of its owner, Jean Dominique, in 2000.

Various virtual “Kanaval” music events are planned to take place during the summer and as part of the 2021 XPoNential Music Festival, WXPN’s annual music festival, Sept. 17-19. In partnership with the Preservation Hall Foundation, the project will culminate in a Philly Krewe du Kanaval Ball extravaganza featuring Haitian and New Orleans artists, scheduled for late 2021 through to early 2022. 

More information about “Kanaval” is available at xpn.org and WXPN social media channels, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram

The “Kanaval” radio documentary launches on Mon., Feb. 1 on WXPN and other NPR member stations across the U.S.

Host of the ‘Kanaval: Haitian Rhythms and the Music of New Orleans’ radio documentary is Leyla McCalla, a New Orleans-based, Haitian-American singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, founding member of Our Native Daughters and alumna of the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops. | Image: Greg Miles

PW recently caught up with LaMay and Warren to talk about the project.

Where did the idea for “Kanaval: Haitian Rhythms and the Music of New Orleans” originate? Why do you feel this is an important story to tell?

WXPN’s previous musical deep dive projects were “Mississippi Blues,” “Zydeco Crossroads” and “Gospel Roots of Rock and Soul,” all featuring different genres of music rooted in African-American culture. We knew we wanted to build on the success of these past projects and expand on this theme of celebrating musical genres with roots in Africa. We also needed to source material that had potential for building a multi-disciplinary project combining a documentary, events, community engagement and a robust website.

Early in our research, we came upon some articles about the influence of Haiti on New Orleans, and after talking with some of our local partners there, realized there is an important but largely overlooked chapter in Black history that we could tell. Through “Kanaval: Haitian Rhythms and the Music of New Orleans” we highlight the incredible impact and resilience of the people and culture of Haiti whose roots are also in Africa.

How does this project compare to ones previously produced by XPN, such as the Peabody Award-nominated “Gospel Roots of Rock & Soul” and “Mississippi Blues” and “Zydeco Crossroads?” Will there be similar events and programming? 

This project’s subject, as far as the radio documentary goes, is a bit narrower than gospel, but along the lines of zydeco and the blues in its focus. There will be in-person events and virtual events.

We also have a new element on this project. We have commissioned a local production company to produce a series of short videos documenting the Haitian experience in Philadelphia. This will draw in part on the input of a local Haitian advisory group who are regularly meeting with us.

“Kanaval” kicks off in February, Black History Month, and will extend through the year. What are some of the early events people should put on their calendars?

“Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever” chronicles recent Haitian history through the lens of musician Leyla McCalla, whose parents were Haitian activists. We are still planning to hold the event in person at the Fringe Arts theater May 14 and 15. It’s the first, in-person event of any kind we have scheduled. 

We plan on having two Haitian bands at our XPoNential Music Festival in September. We plan, at some point, to host a Kanaval Ball here in Philly with Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Haitian bands RAM, Boukman Eksperyans, and others. We are also working on plans for some virtual events to take place over the coming year.

Are you preparing the May event as an in-person event or a virtual one? How have the pandemic and all of the closures and limitations impacted the planning and production process for Kanaval?

Yes, we are planning it as a live event. The impact of the pandemic has affected the timing of everything we originally planned for this project except the radio documentary.

“Kanaval: Haitian Rhythms and the Music of New Orleans” is a three-hour documentary hosted by Haitian-American and New Orleans-based musician Leyla McCalla, a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. It is being distributed by NPR nationally starting Feb. 1. It will air on the three Philadelphia public radio stations WXPN, WRTI, and WHYY in February. WXPN will premiere it on Monday, Feb. 1 at 8pm.

What are the best ways for people to stay up-to-date with all of the Kanaval activities?

Go to our website xpnkanaval.org. On the home page, there is a form to fill out to be added to an email list. That’s the best way to keep abreast of the project.

  • Eugene Zenyatta was raised on old-time Memphis 'rasslin' and strongly prefers the company of dogs to people. His greatest heartbreak came in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic.