Kanaval Documentary Reveals Haitian Influence on New Orleans Culture

24 Feb 2021


Musician Leyla McCalla, part of WXPN's Kanaval: Haitian Rhythms and the Music of New Orleans project. Photo by Sarrah Danzinger.

New Orleans is a city long associated with music, from zydeco to jazz to contemporary hip hop. A new radio documentary from WXPN, supported by a Center Project grant, spotlights an often overlooked influence on the Big Easy: the music and culture of Haiti. Beginning with Haiti’s struggle for independence two centuries ago, the documentary examines the mass emigration of Haitians to New Orleans in the early 19th century and how the Haitian influence has shaped—and continues to shape—New Orleans.

Kanaval: Haitian Rhythms & the Music of New Orleans premiered earlier this month, offering two hours of cultural history through interviews with musicians, historians, and other cultural practitioners—distilled from more than 25 hours of conversations—as well as an hour of music from Haiti and New Orleans. Haitian American and New Orleans-based musician and artist Leyla McCalla hosts the program. McCalla first moved to New Orleans in 2011, drawn there by not just the music but a community that supports it.

“I knew I could make money busking on the street,” McCalla told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Still, McCalla felt that the Haitian influence on New Orleans’ music community was being minimized.

“That Haitian connection wasn’t being talked about when I first moved here,” McCalla told the Inquirer. “I’m happy that’s more of a conversation that’s happening now.”



Ti Mache ceremony, Congo Square during Arcade Fire's Third Annual Krewe du Kanaval celebration, February 14, 2020, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images.


In addition to McCalla’s perspective, the documentary features the voices and music of Boukman Eksperyans, Paul Beaubrun, RAM, Lakou Mizik, Chico Boyer, Win Butler and Regine Chassagne of Arcade Fire, Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, Ben Jaffe of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and others. Additional insights are provided by historian and musician Ned Sublette, Duke University professor Laurent DuBois, Loyola University New Orleans professor Angel Adams Parham, author Edwidge Danticat, Linda Reno and Lori Martineau of the organization Haitianola, and Wesleyan professor Elizabeth McAlister.

For WXPN general manager Roger LaMay, the project has opened his eyes to what he called Haiti’s “generally unacknowledged profound influence on New Orleans.”

“I’ve worked in music a long time,” LaMay told Penn Today, “and I didn’t know this story.”

The Kanaval project will also comprise a number of forthcoming live events, including concerts and a performance of McCalla’s Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever, which she premiered at Duke University last March. Dates for these events are still to be announced.

Kanaval is now available to stream on the project website. The website includes playlists that weave together the music of Haiti and New Orleans, and short films about the Haitian community in Philadelphia will be added in the future.

“For people who know Haiti and New Orleans, the similarities are endless,” McCalla explained to NPR’s World Cafe. “The deep connections between these places really come alive in the music.”



Preservation Jazz Hall Band. Photo by Josh Goleman. 


Previous Center-supported WXPN documentaries include Gospel Roots of Rock & Soul, Zydeco Crossroads, and Mississippi Blues Project.

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