The Creole Choir of Cuba (Grupo Vocal Desandann) is one of the most original vocal sounds to come out of of the country in a long while. The Creole Choir’s Cuban name Desandann means literally ‘descendents’ and with the songs on their forthcoming album ‘Tande-La’ (which translates to ‘listen’) they tell the stories of their Haitian ancestors who were brought to Cuba to work in near slave conditions in the sugar and coffee plantations.
The Creole Choir, a cornucopia of remarkable voices, are booked for four nights at the London Jazz Festival (17-20 November at the Theatre Royal Stratford East) and as anybody who has witnessed the Choir live before can confirm, this is an experience not to be missed. The Creole Choir of Cuba are Rogelio Torriente, Fidel Miranda, Teresita Miranda, Marcelo Luis, Dalio Vital, Emilia Diaz Chavez, Yordanka Fajardo, Irian Montejo, Marina Fernandes, and Yara Diaz.
Their mesmerizing sound, jubilant dancing and deep spirit first made them a big hit in the UK at the 2009 Edinburgh Festival. It was there that the producer of BBC 2’s ‘Later … with Jools Holland’ saw the vibrant ten-piece choir and was so impressed he asked them to appear on the show. This finally happened in May 2010 when they performed the uplifting and emotional ‘Chen Nan Ren’, a freedom song denouncing neo-colonialism and colonialism while conveying the celebratory and glorious feeling of resistance which harks back to the freedom songs of the 1960s circa Martin Luther King and the struggle for racial equality in the USA.
Various interviews and sessions followed – including a BBC Radio 2 session with Mark Lamarr who was deeply impressed – and even Jo Wiley played a track on Radio 2. The Choir also performed to invited media and guests at a memorable show at the magical Wiltons Music Hall in East London.
The Choir sing in Creole, Cuba’s second language, spoken by almost a million people, a pragmatic fusion of African, French and other languages. It’s the language of a people twice exiled: first to Haiti from Africa through the iniquitous slave trade; then from Haiti to Cuba tricked into second slavery by their French masters after the Haitian Revolution of 1790. Other Haitians arrived in the 20th century fleeing political upheaval, poverty and oppression during the barbaric regime of Papa Doc Duvalier which held power from the 1950s to 70s, marked by reigns of terror and the brutality of his private militia, the Tonton Macoutes.
In a testament to their enduring relationship with their spiritual homeland, the Choir recently spent two month-long tours in Haiti as part of Cuba’s relief project following the January earthquake. Working in cooperation with the Haitian Cultural Ministry the group ran workshops with children within displaced persons camps as well as performing for the public in specially arranged concerts.
The Choir – five men and five women – hail from beautiful Camagüey, Cuba’s third city, an old colonial town, designated a UNESCO World heritage Site in 2008 for its iconic architecture. They have studied music to university level in Camagüey and are all members of the Provincial Choir, which their leader Emilia directs. Desandann emerged out of this choir in 1994, a difficult time for Cubans when the economy fell into a black hole following the end of the USSR and of Soviet support for the revolution. Food was short while homes and work places often went dark due to lack of electricity. The singers decided to re-forge the resistance songs and laments of their forebears, to celebrate the history of their Haitian descendents enslaved to the Caribbean from West Africa. To the songs that had been passed down in their families since the early 19th century, they added more modern Haitian sounds.