Cuban choir salutes Haiti from a distance

Boston Globe, September 11, 2011

After the awful earthquake of January 2010 that devastated Port-au-Prince, Haiti, an unusual form of consolation and aid arrived from nearby Cuba, alongside the medical corps that the Cuban government quickly dispatched.

This other, less orthodox relief group took the form of a 10-person vocal choir, five women and five men. They visited the camps, slept in the open air with survivors, played with the children – and everywhere sang, sang, sang.

They had no trouble connecting with their audience: They sang in Creole. Their repertoire consisted of Haitian roots and folk songs. That’s because the group’s members, although Cuban, were all descendants of Haitian sugar cane workers. They came from the eastern city of Camaguey, a center of Cuba’s Haitian community, and in performing in Haiti, they were in a simple sense coming home.

Now, 17 years after its formation in Camaguey and 15 years after its first trip to Haiti, the Creole Choir of Cuba – known back home as Grupo Vocal Desandann – is finally making inroads in the United States. On the heels of its debut in Brooklyn earlier this year, it launches a major US tour on Oct. 1 at the Somerville Theatre.

And “Tande-La,” the group’s first recording available outside Cuba, made last year with the prestigious Real World label, is already available for download and comes out on CD on Tuesday.

It’s a powerful set of vocal music accompanied simply by light percussions. The songs range from roots classics that fans of Haitian music will recognize (“L’Atibonite,” for example) to work songs from the fields and protest songs that date back to the Duvalier dictatorship of the 1950s.

The performance – a democratic affair in which each member gets the chance to solo – manages to be exhilarating and meticulous at the same time. The vocalists are highly trained: They all belonged to Camaguey’s classical choir before splitting off in 1994 to explore the music of their childhood.

“We decided to form the group as a way to promote the beautiful songs of the Haitian people, songs we grew up hearing in our homes,” says choir leader Emilia Diaz Chavez, speaking in Spanish by phone from a tour stop in southern Spain. “Many people do not know that Haiti is such a large inspiration in Cuban culture.”

Haitian dance, she says, is quite popular in Cuba, and the music that accompanies it is well known. But these folk songs mostly stayed in the private realm of families that emigrated, some two generations ago, some three or more. “There does not exist another group that does just these songs,” Chavez says.

Until recently, the choir had few opportunities to perform beyond Cuba and Haiti. But about five years ago, British producers John Simpson and Jon Lee, who have arranged tours for numerous Cuban music and dance groups, ran into them by chance at a performance at the culture ministry in Havana.

“This was something we had never heard before, and no one had told us about it,” Simpson says. Their performance was striking, and it was clear they were playing an important cultural preservation role. “When they travel back to Haiti they are taking some songs back that have been forgotten,” he says. “They’re a little cultural savings bank for Haiti based in Cuba.”

Simpson and Lee helped organize concerts in Europe and were involved in the Real World recording, working with each group member to unearth as many songs as possible from their Haitian immigrant heritage, making “Tande-La” a particularly strong and moving program.

Having made multiple trips to Haiti since 1996 and forged professional ties there, the choir also lost colleagues in the earthquake, Chavez says. If anything, she says, the experience reinforced them in their mission – whether addressing Haitians and their diaspora, or new audiences unfamiliar with the songs and the language.

“The message is that we need to strengthen the ties of love among all humanity,” Chavez says. “We sing from the heart most of all. People even cry at the end of our performances. Voice is something that identifies us as human.”