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Rhythms of resistance: having conquered Scotland after appearing at the edinburgh festival last year, the Creole Choir of Cuba, known in Cuba as grupo vocal desandann (the group of descendants), are continuing their relentless global outreach. Stephen Williams went to see them.

ACCORDING TO ONE SCOTTISH newspaper: "Anyone who has fallen for Cuban music of any style, be it the Buena Vista Social Club or Omar Sosa, or who just likes great singing, will be moved by this ultra-colourful, cross-generational troupe's performance."

But it is not all show business for the 10-piece choir. Earlier this year they devoted themselves to two month-long tours of Haiti as part of Cuba's relief project following the January earthquake. Working in co-operation with the Haitian Cultural Ministry, the group ran workshops with children in displaced persons' camps as well as performing for the public at specially arranged concerts.

"When we arrived at the airport, we saw everything destroyed and many people sleeping in tents," says choir leader Emilia Diaz Chavez. "The suffering of the population caused us a lot of distress, but when we sang to the people we felt that we were helping in some small way. They would smile and applaud and I think that helped them."

Showing solidarity with the people of Haiti was entirely appropriate, for although the members of the Creole Choir are residents of Cuba, they all trace their roots back to Haiti. They are descendants of people who have been doubly displaced; their forbears were either snatched from Africa to be enslaved in Haiti and then tricked into moving to Cuba to work as indentured labour on the sugar and coffee plantations or, more recently, refugees from the appalling regime of the Haitian dictator "Papa Doc" Duvalier and the aftermath of his rule.

Today, perhaps one million of Cuba's 12 million population trace their roots to Haiti. The Creole Choir hails from Cuba's third city, Camaguey, which for the splendour of its colonial architecture is now a protected Unesco World Heritage Site.

They are all university music graduates and met each other as members of the Provincial Choir. But when Cuba experienced its very own credit crunch, known as the "Special Period" following the end of economic support after the Soviet Union collapsed. State funding for the choir evaporated and they got together to form the Creole Choir.


Their full line-up is as follows: Rogelio Torriente, Fidel Miranda, Teresita Miranda, Marcelo Luis, Dalio Vital, Emilia Diaz Chavez, Yordanka Fajardo, Irian Montejo, Marina Fernandes and Yara Diaz.

From the outset, they instinctively drew on their roots, reclaiming the rich traditions of both their Haitian and Cuban heritage. And, of course, these traditions hold both deep African traditions as well as modern African inflections, thanks to the strong links that have continued to exist across the Atlantic, between the Caribbean and the mother continent, for many generations.


Accompanied by only a pair of drums and some hand-held percussion instruments, they sing in Creole, Cuba's second language. Slaves first created Creole in the 18th century by fusing words together from their African languages as well as the Taino language of the Caribbean's indigenous peoples and elements of French, Spanish and English. Worldwide, including West Africa, it is estimated as many as 12 million people speak Creole.

And the rhythms are unmistakably those Latin rumba rhythms that have been popular in Africa since the 1950s and are now interwoven so completely into much of the continent's contemporary music.

For example, the song Chen Nan Ren from their new album is a freedom song that celebrates resistance and the on-going struggle for racial equality in the US. The group learnt this song from a recording by the Haitian group, Bobech Bitasyon. It denounces colonialism and neo-colonialism, saying that slavery still exists for the poor of the earth but in different ways today, a reference to the Haitian dispossessed.

Anyone fortunate enough to catch a live performance of the Creole Choir will experience not just the richly textured harmonies of Latin rumba, but also their jubilant dance styles that would not be out of place in Bamako (Mali), Kinshasa (DRCongo), Dakar (Senegal) or Luanda (Angola).

As a finale, the Creole Choir take the opportunity to mingle with the audience, singing to them, shaking hands, touching faces and embracing their guests--celebrating a humanity that binds us all. It is both a moving and, in its truest sense, a touching moment before they depart, leaving many moved to tears by the exquisite beauty of the performance.
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Author:Williams, Stephen
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:5CUBA
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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