Creole Choir of Cuba - finding musical riches in their ancestry


Emilia Diaz Chavez is a woman on a mission. The artistic director of the Creole Choir of Cuba, which makes its Celtic Connections debut this weekend, wants people to know more about Haiti.


Even after last January’s catastrophic earthquake, which killed anywhere between ninety thousand and three hundred thousand people, left at least a million homeless and made the Caribbean country the lead news story worldwide for days, most people, says Chavez, don’t know where Haiti is, let alone that it has a rich musical heritage.


The cruel irony is that in Cuba, where as many as one tenth of the population might claim some sort of familial connection with its neighbour, many people considered Haiti a disaster zone before the earthquake struck.


"Haiti has a reputation for being poor, struggling, always terrible," says Chavez, "so lots of people in Cuba don't want to say they're descended from Haitians.”


Chavez and the choir differ. The ten-strong group, which captured hearts and minds in huge numbers with their performances at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2009, are proud of their ancestry. So proud that, in 1994, they formed a sub-group of the state choir of Camagüey, a large, low-lying and sparsely populated province roughly half-way between Cuba’s capital, Havana, and Santiago de Cuba, to perform the songs they grew up with.


As the state choir’s director, Chavez had helped other choristers begin special projects to do with their heritage, so when some of her members came to her and said they wanted to celebrate the Creole tradition, she was delighted.


“These were songs that we’d had sung to us at home by our grandparents,” she says through the choir’s Spanish-speaking chaperon and tour manager, Kelso Riddell. “They hadn’t really been performed in public and they hadn’t been written down before Marcello, our bass singer, who is also a composer, started to arrange them for the choir.”


We’re chatting in the large Edinburgh flat that the choir has made its base while it undertakes a charm offensive that has taken in Singapore, Spain, London and a very thorough tour of Holland, which involved their first experience of sheet ice, over the past few weeks. A cheerful, matronly woman who makes us coffee Cuban-style as she describes the choir’s history, Chavez, it turns out, has a claim to fame of her own that predates the choir’s emergence onto the world stage. Back in Camagüey she’s also a music teacher and one of her former pupils is the brilliant Cuban pianist and celebrator of his own African roots, Omar Sosa, whose international success is clearly a source of some pride to his teacher.


Edinburgh has played a significant part in the choir’s international success. A couple of hefty goal kicks away from the flat is the church where the choir’s Fringe performances, with their mixture of defiance, praise, celebration, joy and movement including don’t try this at home back flips, not only caused queuing round the block, it drew music industry movers and shakers including Peter Gabriel, who signed the choir to his Real World label. An appearance at the major world music festival Womad and a spot on Later … with Jools Holland also followed.


The song they sang on Later …, Chen Nan Ren, is a freedom song that speaks of resistance to colonialism and has been likened to the defiant anthems of the 1960s civil rights movement in America, something that resonates strongly with the choir and their ancestors. Just as the British shipped huge numbers of the West African populace (or at least those who survived the journey) into Mississippi to work in the cotton fields and the Portuguese and Spanish did likewise to staff Brazil’s gold mines and Mexico’s silver mines, the French took the choir’s ancestors over to Haiti to work the sugar plantations.


Between 1795 and 1805 thirty thousand slaves fled from Haiti to Cuba to escape French colonial rule, with further waves following from the 1920s to the 1940s. Chavez’s grandparents belonged to the second wave and sought work on Cuba’s coffee plantations. Their lives were hard, although slightly less so than before. But she’s keen to point out that the choir’s songs, some of which go back four hundred years, cover all aspects of life.


“We sing about everything,” she says. “There are social songs that tell of hardship and work songs that describe the pain of hard labour but some of the work songs were also designed to make long hours of toil easier, as they were in the chain gangs in Mississippi. But it’s not all about how tough life is. There are love songs and lullabies too. Basically, whatever was happening had songs to accompany it because just as young people walk around with iPods and earphones today, music was the soundtrack to our peoples’ lives – it was just that they had a live soundtrack.”


With their first album for Real World, Tande-la (it’s Creole for “listen”) receiving favourable attention, the choir, which is known in Cuba as Grupo Vocal Desandann – the Descendants, is looking at spending longer and longer periods away from home. They’ve toured the U.S., Canada, France and Italy and following their UK tour, which runs through most of February, they have dates in Australia and New Zealand. The Cuban authorities are very supportive of their foreign touring activities but the choir have important work to do back home.


“We’ve begun teaching our songs to school children and we must keep doing that,” says Chavez, “because the next generation need to know their inheritance so that all these songs that have been kept alive by our families for all those years don’t suddenly get lost or die.”


From The Herald, January 27, 2011.


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