Highway's Song

The Creole Choir of Cuba: A Glimpse into the Folk Tradition of Afro-Carribean Music

The Creole Choir of Cuba. Photo by Sven Creutzmann.

The Creole Choir of Cuba is performing tonight, so on the off chance you’ve picked this paper up the day it hit newsstands, you can wrangle a date, head to UCSD, cross your fingers that tickets haven’t sold out, and make a marvelous Tuesday night of it in this not-quite-so-backwoods town of ours.

Recorded or in person, this 10-piece vocal group presents interpretations from the Afro-Caribbean folk tradition that are textured and scholarly and very, very intense. The term Afro-Caribbean covers a broad family of musics as speciated as finches in the Galapagos, but to the global audience it’s often all compounded and mislabeled as reggae or salsa or even just Latin. The Creole Choir of Cuba, however, exists in a very specific spot in the Caribbean spectrum: they are the sons and daughters of Haitian refugees living in Cuba, and they are looking back to their Haitian musical roots.

Haiti and Cuba are two very different countries, politically and culturally, separated by 50 miles of water, with histories deeply intertwined. Haiti became the first Latin American country to throw off the colonial yoke after a slave revolt in the late 18th century. The first Haitians in Cuba were actually French colonists fleeing the revolt, and they brought their slaves with them. Hardships and oppressive dictators caused successive waves of Haitian refugees into Spanish-speaking Cuba, straight through into the present day. These refugees settled in the Eastern and Central zones of the island in numbers enough to hold onto their languages, their religions, and their music. A majority of Haitians – at home and in Cuba – speak Creole, which is a pragmatic melange of French, Yoruba, Spanish, and other languages. Singing in Creole gives the Choir’s songs a distinctly African sound: the words themselves are another layer of echoes starting in Cuba and passing back through Haitian slavery under the French and back further to West Africa.

The ten members of the Creole Choir of Cuba are all classically college-trained singers from Camaguey – a city in the Cuban interior with a large Haitian population – and they pursue this “roots” music in addition to performing classical repertoire with the provincial choir. This explains a lot about the unique sound of their project: it feels rigorously researched and arranged, and the actual singing is technically powerful, though not at all stiff or “academic”. Their debut CD, Tande-La, which translated means “Listen,” is a tour-de-force of full-bodied a cappella music, sometimes accompanied by tasteful hand percussion. The style takes its cue from traditional African call-and-response, but seems to contain more layers; often there is a voice imitating a bass, and the responding voices are broken up into overlapping parts that feed a kind of momentum in the compositions. And while the backing vocals sometimes feel precise and well-rehearsed, the leader is never anything but raw, driving from deep in the diaphragm.

Probably the closest American analog to this kind of singing would be Sweet Honey in the Rock – a long-standing women’s vocal group that does heartfelt arrangements of old African-American spirituals. There is the same serious looking-back, the same vocal immediacy, even many of the same themes permeate the groups’ choices of songs. The Creole Choir’s songs are vernacular narratives, peppered with references to both Christian and African religions, but the main theme seems always to be resistance: resistance to slavery, resistance to oppression, resistance to daily hardships. Here’s an example:

Neg anwo, gade neg anba!
Mize yoap pase, oh!
Ba yo lavi, tande, ba yo limie souple.

Black people above, look at the black people below!
The misery they suffer, oh!
Listen: let them live, give them some light.

And though most of the audience at this show won’t be able to parse the words (I myself speak both Spanish and French, but I’m still lost in Creole), the intent comes across in well-performed music. A love song, a lament, and a rallying cry each carries its own emotional signature with or without the words.

According to the press materials I’ve been sent, the Creole Choir of Cuba puts on quite a show. The singers have choreographed dance routines that mirror the narratives in the songs and show off some of their traditional dances. The women wear bright West African patterned dresses and head scarves. I haven’t seen any of this, but I’m getting excited about it, and not least because I’ve come to trust UCSD’s concert series more than just about any other cultural venue in San Diego.

The genre of World Music has been more or less on the decline in the States since its peak with the smash success of the Buena Vista Social Club – another import from Cuba – in 1996. “World Music” is that most insultingly named of genres – implying that all music made outside the U.S. should be lumped into a corner – but record stores (are there still record stores?) need to label their bins somehow. In San Diego’s live music venues, World Music generally means any music rooted elsewhere, except maybe reggae or Latin pop, which are so popular here that they can claim their own distinct names. The World Music decline has a number of contributing factors: the recession, the collapse of the CD industry, changing tastes, but the end result is that very few new high-profile world music acts come through San Diego compared with the scene ten years ago. What was briefly a flow of exciting international groups coming through venues like the Belly Up, 4th and B, and the California Center for the Arts has dwindled to a trickle.

Only the long-running UCSD concert series – called ArtPower for the last five years or so – has kept up a consistent program of new buzz-worthy performers from the World Music scene. I can happily reel off a list of great nights I’ve spent there in the last ten years, with acts like the Garifuna Women’s Collective, Tinariwen, Susana Baca, and, yes, the Buena Vista Social Club. Much of the credit for the quality of the continuing program must go to Martin Wollesen, its director since 2004, whose superbly comical inability to pronounce Spanish names correctly has never stopped him from introducing each show personally. Under Wollesen’s guidance, ArtPower, which also includes contemporary dance and chamber music, has grown interactive tentacles – stretching out into films, culinary events, master classes, smaller experimental performances, and new synergistic compositions. Both the crowd and the price are still fairly hoity-toity, but ArtPower is more relevant than ever.

I’ll be there again tonight, ready to clap along with the clave of the Creole Choir of Cuba.

See the Creole Choir of Cuba Tuesday, November 1, at the Mandeville Auditorium, UCSD Campus, 8pm.

  • September 2016

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