The Creole Choir of Cuba give voice to their Haitian roots with captivating harmonies and terrific soloists, with vitality, humour and compassion, telling stories of freedom, survival, traditional folk tales, and humorous anecdotes.
The Creole Choir of Cuba are six women and four men. In performance, they use percussion to accompany themselves - Cuban claves and a pair of conga drums emblazoned with 'naïve art' scenes and the words 'Grupo Vocal… Desandann' – their original name, and a clue to members' roots. Although they hail from Cuba, much of their music draws on the vodou folklore of neighbouring Haiti.
The lyrics of many songs tell the stories of important people and events in Haitian history. Common themes include oppression, misery, censorship and imprisonment – on a socio-economic and political level. Haiti's much misunderstood religion called vodou (or 'voodoo') has inspired a strong tradition of rousing folk songs, many expressing solidarity with the poor, and resistance to Haiti's equally vigorous tradition of tyrannical 'leaders'. The Choir's songs often use humour to confront fears and problematic situations with strength, which is typically Haitian.
They sing in both Spanish and Haitian Creole, a mixture of Spanish, English and West African languages, and their eclectic repertoire includes more than 100 songs in Haitian Creole, Spanish and English. They are not a traditional choir; in Cuba, each region has its own 'choir', which is government-sponsored and fully professional, rather than affiliated to any church. For 32 years, Emilia Diaz Chavez has been the director of El Coro Profesional de Camagüey, named after their provincial hometown. Its members are trained in all types of music, from Renaissance to contemporary. In 1994, Emilia decided to found a smaller group, with members drawn only from Cuba's largest ethnic minority – people of Haitian descent. Ever since the Haitian Revolution, which led to the founding of the world's first 'black republic' at the dawn of the 19th century, Haiti has produced successive waves of emigrants. Many ended up in Cuba, where, despite official protestations to the contrary, they often experience racism.
In 1996, the group were invited to Haiti for the first time. They travelled around the country, researching songs to add to the ones they had already learnt from their parents and grandparents. In 2002 they went back and spent longer. Having become well known and made many new friends on subsequent visits, they felt compelled to return and perform there after the calamitous earthquake of January, 2010.
"We had a complete need inside us to go there and share their pain, and go and see friends and family that we'd met," Emilia recalls. "It was a very, very painful experience, but at the same time it was also a comforting experience because we felt we were able to give something to them. We were trying to relax them, trying to make them smile.. giving them the strength to continue having faith in life. We worked with lots of people in very desperate situations - with orphans, children who had no family members left. We made them sing, we made them dance. They wanted to come back with us! And because we were able to speak to them in their own language, they felt very comfortable with us."
The choir have a strong history of touring in France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.