Imagine it: merrily trotting down the streets of New Orleans, buffeted by the sound of drums bellowing through the air and the potent scents of spice and pork sizzling from nearby street vendors. It’s a scene that could just as easily take place in Haiti.
Such is the basis of WXPN’s latest national radio documentary project, “Kanaval: Haitian Rhythms and the Music of New Orleans.” The documentary, which spans three one-hour episodes and is hosted by Haitian-American and New Orleans-based musician Leyla McCalla, is both history lesson and cultural education about how modern New Orleans staples mirror Haitian traditions. The first hour addresses Haiti’s roots in French colonialism, the resulting slave revolution, and the migration of nearly 10,000 Haitian refugees to New Orleans, doubling the city’s population in 1809. The second hour shifts focus to how this influx of free Black people, enslaved people, and white people from the Caribbean colony shaped the music culture of New Orleans. The final hour presents a collection of Haitian-influenced music.
The narrative ultimately demonstrates, as it’s described in the first hour of the documentary, how the “Frenchness” of New Orleans is more like the “Haitianness.”
“This story has an added bonus, from my point of view, of being one that’s also about a much-maligned immigrant community at a time when immigration has been such a hot-button issue,” says Roger LaMay, general manager of WXPN. “It’s a community that has a generally unacknowledged profound influence on New Orleans, insofar as New Orleans has a big influence on culture and music [at-large].
“I’ve worked in music a long time,” LaMay adds, “and I didn’t know this story.”
The seed of the project was planted after LaMay watched a Haitian drum performance brought to stage by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and members of Arcade Fire. The musicians began talking about the impact of Haitian culture on New Orleans and, after discussing it with WXPN Assistant General Manager Bruce Warren, posed the question central to the documentary: “Why is New Orleans like New Orleans?”
“It’s a deep well of connections that we’ve really enjoyed exploring,” LaMay says.
Warren, who executive produced 2019’s “Gospel Roots of Rock & Soul” and 2015’s “Zydeco Crossroads” documentaries, also executive produced “Kanaval.” He says the documentary’s production began in February 2020 with a research trip to New Orleans to experience the Krewe du Kanaval Ball, a celebratory Haitian experience that leads into Mardi Gras. Along with producer Alex Lewis, they recorded sounds and conducted interviews with people on the street, using it as a basis for the project. They pinpointed 25 to 30 people to interview, who were predominantly interviewed via Zoom—atypical of the process, Warren adds, but a necessary adjustment during the pandemic.
They also adapted as the racial justice movement emerged after the death of George Floyd.
“By May or June, with the George Floyd murder, there were a whole set of issues around social justice we felt we needed to explore,” Warren says. “At the heart of the story around Haiti is the slavery piece. And it spoke specifically to some of the same things happening in June with Black Lives Matter.”
The team consolidated 25 hours of interviews into two hours of narrative that Warren describes as “optimistic, uplifting, and somber in parts.”
“There’s a tone of resilience that comes through it,” he adds. “We wanted to make sure that was the message. Haiti does not have a great reputation, and we wanted to flip that narrative. We wanted to recognize there are horrible things that happened in that country’s history, but through it all, there’s resilience and optimistic, and the religion and music and Vodouism is a big part of that.”
The final hour is a mix of rara music, a style that has roots in Vodou and in Haiti commemorates the slave revolution. It also includes a mix of traditional and contemporary Haitian music, classic New Orleans songs from Mardi Gras, and a performance by McCalla.
The audio documentary, distributed by NPR, kicks off a larger Kanaval project, funded by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage with additional funding from the Wyncote Foundation. The project consists of a website, one-off stories about Haitian culture airing on World Cafe, and a year of events. In May, Leyla McCalla, and Kiyoko McCrae debut the Philadelphia premiere of “Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever,” a musical performance that retells the story of Radio Inter-Haiti and the assassination of its owner, Jean Dominique. More music events will take place during the summer, and Philadelphia will premiere its own Krewe du Kanaval Ball featuring Haitian and New Orleans artists in late 2021 or early 2022.