Creole Choir of Cuba

20 February 2010 and a little over a month after the massive 12 January
earthquake that devastated Haiti, the Creole Choir of Cuba are in Port of Prince
living with the long term mission of 600 Cuban doctors, nurses and para-medics.
Each day at 8am they leave to visit various makeshift encampments, where, in
whatever shade is available under hot sun, they gather the people together and
sing, their aim, in the words of Emilia Díaz Chávez, the Creole Choir’s Director,
“to help the Haitian people de-stress with music”. While UK television reports
about aid workers unable to leave Haiti’s main airport, the Creole Choir are
journeying out every day to different settlements in all parts of the city and further
out to nearby towns visiting many orphanages. At night they bed down on
mattresses in tents in the grounds of the hospital behind the ruined Presidential
Palace. They spend most evenings sitting singing with local children, most of
then orphans, who gravitate to the Cuban compound.
Haitian by descent these Cuban musicians find themselves learning new songs
from children who despite their plight are keen to share what they know and
laugh in the process. This is a very moving experience for the choir who back
home in Cuba are known as Grupo Vocal Desandann. Desandann literally
means 'descendents' and they have revived the songs of their ancestors for
modern times because of a belief that, "Music is like food, it feeds the spirit and is
a major inspiration for everyday life". Their sojourn in Haiti so soon after the
earthquake only confirms this belief: “We are Cubans but this we felt this
catastrophe deep in our hearts as our families were born there and it is our
heritage. Haiti is a country that has suffered, yet its people and its children are
alive with culture”
The Creole Choir's ten remarkable singers come from Camagüey, Cuba's third
city, down towards the eastern end of the island. They grew up and studied
music in this old colonial town, designated a UNESCO World heritage Site in
2008 for its iconic architecture. The Creole Choir itself was founded in 1994
during the 'Special Period', when the Cuban 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. It
was at this difficult time that members of the Professional Choir of Camagüey
who were descendents of Haitians 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 following their own first visit to a Haitian festival in 1996.
Songs are sung in creole, Cuba's second language, first created by slaves by
fusing words together words from their African languages, the Taíno language of
Caribbean indigenous people, with French, Spanish and English. Creole was
spoken by the choir's parents, grandparents and great grandparents, people
doubly displaced, first from Africa then from Haiti. The first wave of Haitians were
brought to Cuba as slaves to work in the sugar plantations of the French
aristocracy who fled Haiti after the slave revolts of the 1790s. Subsequent
waves of Haitians came to the island during 19th and early 20th century, and
again in the 1950s during the brutal dictatorship of Papa Doc Duvalier. All lived in
the countryside in conditions akin to slavery enduring harsh discrimination until
the 1959 Revolution brought with it literacy, education and equality. The Creole
Choir describe each of their songs as being 'like a small film' filled with vitality,
humour and compassion. They tell stories of survival despite abject poverty, of
heroes who defied colonial masters, of ghosts at the crossroads, of enduring
love, of homesickness for family, of abandonment but never loss of hope,
mother's laments and prayers, of the desire for freedom. With irresistible
melodies driven by richly textured harmonies, shifting Caribbean rhythms with a
very original root bass sound, this is impassioned singing by a unique group. In
the words of the glorious Edem Chanté – Help Us Sing! - be prepared to hear
something completely different and 'new' from Cuba.

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