Creole Choir of Cuba

RNCM, Manchester, Saturday 12 February 2011

Cuba has a rich diversity of musical styles that embrace some of the neighbouring countries. One of the lesser known musical connections, however, is that between the island and Haiti. Enter Desendann, better known outside the island as the Creole Choir of Cuba. They are in fact the descendants of Haitian slaves who were brought ot the east of the island to work on the coffee and sugar plantations. In terms of harmonies (gospel-infused), language (Creole) and multi-layered melodies, they are quite unlike any of Cuba’s multifarious music forms and as such have created their own niche.

In fact this had all the feel of a gospel choir, though not in the traditional sense of one from say the United States. Rather it evoked those emanating from the townships of South Africa with a more percussive bent. Each of the songs related to a specific aspect of the Haitian diaspora’s historical journey to Cuba and their subsequent settlement and daily lives there. Typically a female lead would introduce a song before the choir as a whole would join in, dividing up the harmonies, sometimes between different rows of singers, sometimes between male and female vocalists and with a continual rotation of lead singers. Thus the first two songs, ‘Mangaje’ and ‘Edem chante’, were devoted to a symbolic Haitian slave who has become disoriented and a freedom song respectively.

In general the voices were deeply emotional and varied from baritone to soprano. Lines delivered by the singers have a tendency to be repeated while the rest of the choir sing in unison and this creates cascading layers of vocal sound. The songs themseleves were quite concise in nature, yet well constructed nonetheless. Within this structure there was leeway for a good deal of improvising, and this was something the singers would attempt throughout the evening. Call and response patterns similar to gospel predominated. Additional West African influences became apparent during the dance routines, particularly on a number such as ‘Kadja boswa’ which was based around a prayer to help protect travellers en route to a given destination. Indeed it was fascinating to observe how initially this aspect of African culture has over time been transposed into a quintessentially Caribbean context. During the first half of the evening this was by far the best received song among the audience.

Another moving piece, ‘Marasa elu’, recounted the experience of orphaned children with the singers acting out the former’s search for their parents. Here the excellent choreography immediately conveyed the tragedy that had befallen the children. One of the most compelling numbers was ‘Tande’, ostensibly a song in favour of freedom and against the Duvalier dictatorship which wrought so much suffering on the Haitian people.

During the second half of the evening the conga players maintained a rapid pace that only intensified with the vocalists in full flow. The audience was swept up in the emotion of the moment and from early on in the evening actively participated, first of all invited by the singers to hand clap and thereafter out of their seats to dance. They were greeted by one of the singers with a ‘Bonsoir’ and a few introductory comments in English. Certainly one of the most interesting songs to emerge in the second part was ‘Ou pa nan chaj’, which was in fact a dialogue between two female singers. This was then expanded to six singers including a male lead and led to amusing role play. At one point during the evening a female lead vocalist went into the audience and enticed a man onto the stage to dance with her. An hilarious dance routine then ensued with humiliation by a thousand cuts for the unfortunate male, much to the obvious delight of the entire audience. By this stage the audience was feeling far more relaxed and in a mood to party which they did for the rest of the show.

For a well earned encore, the Creole Choir of Cuba changed attack and introduced more traditional Cuban musical flavours which were naturally sung in Spanish. Beefed up percussion and no slacking off in the, at times blistering tempo, enthralled the audience and elements of Cuban son were introduced where the art of vocal improvising over a basic rhythm came into play. This evoked the sonero greats from the past of the calibre of Cheo Marqutti, Beny More and the inimitable Celia Cruz who all came to the fore during the 1940s and 1950s in pre-Castro Cuba. Equally, however, it brought back memories of the more recent heroes to grace Cuban son under the collective umbrella of the Buena Vistas such as Ibrahim Ferrer, Pio Leyva and Compay Segundo who were virtually all just beginning their careers in the 1950s.

Finally, some comment should be made of the wonderful choreographical work which was greatly aided by a highly creative stage setting with an ethnic black, red and yellow printed background and raised platform to take into account the numerous percussionists (which varied from congo player to cowbell and even hand-wrist tambourine) and allow the rest of the floor to be covered by the singers/dancers. The evening was as much a visual treat as it was an aural delight.

Tim Stenhouse

Astral Travelling Since 1993