The Creole Choir of Cuba performs on March 13 at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
Creole Choir of Cuba
♦ 8:30 p.m. March 13
♦ Old Town School of Folk Music, Maurer Hall, 4544 N. Lincoln
♦ Tickets, $23-$25 ♦ (773) 728-6000;
The more removed you are from home, the more you recognize your roots.
Such is the story of The Creole Choir of Cuba, formed in 1995. The members of the 9-piece touring group are descendants of former freed slaves from Haiti who were twice exiled: first to Haiti from Africa through slave trade; then from Haiti to Cuba in second slavery on Cuban sugar plantations operated by their French masters (after the Haitian Revolution of 1790).
“We are made up of descendants of immigrants from Haiti of the first, second and third generation,” choir director Emilia Diaz-Chavez said through her translator/tour manager last week before a show in Ft. Pierce, Fla. “Our objective was to show people the songs our parents and grandparents taught us when we were children.”
The group is touring to support their second album “Santiman” (“Sentiment”) , which in two weeks soared two No. 2 on World Music charts.
Expect empowering vocals accented by DIY instrumentation at their Old Town School concert on March 13. The group sings in Spanish and Haitian Creole (a gumbo of Spanish, English and West African languages). “There are very few instruments,” Diaz-Chavez says. “Congas. Hand percussion of Haitian origin. Cuban claves. An ax head you hit with a wrench. Most of the sound you hear is acappella. Marcelo [Andres-Luis], who is the bass singer, sounds like a double bass when he sings.”
In Cuba, every province has a choir of classically-trained singers. Diaz-Chavez has been director of the Provincial Choir of Camaguey, the third-largest city in Cuba(pop. 322,000), for 34 years. The city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 for its colonial architecture.
Fidel Castro is a fan of the Creole Choir of Cuba. “After he saw us, one of the things he said was for us to carry on to the next generation,” Diaz-Chavez said.
Diaz-Chavez said there are no external vocal influences on the choir, such as the South African a cappella singing group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. “There is no other group like us,” she said. “There is no other group in Cuba that does this. There is no other group in Haiti that does this.”
The choir was part of the first group of Cubans who brought relief to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 318,000 people. She explained, “We sang with children and helped people to put smiles back on their faces as they were wandering around traumatized.”
But it turned out that the Haitian children taught the choir “Fey Oh Di Nou” (“Oh Leaves Us”), a traditional children’s song about a group attempting to invoke the divine power of medicinal plants to heal a sick man. The song is featured on the new record.
There are 10 liberating voices (six women, four men) on “Santiman.” One of them, Dalio Arce-Vital, died of a sudden heart attack after the recording. His nickname was “Papi.” He has been replaced by his son, Dalio Jr.
“We call him ‘Papito’,” Diaz-Chavez said. “So we had a member of the group die and another one left for another country. The first thing I look for in a replacement is a descendant of the Haitians. Then, they have to know the rhythms that come from Haiti. In the vodou religion there are about 180 spirits and each one has a rhythm and a song associated with it.
“The roots of the rhythms of Haiti come from different parts of Africa, from the slaves that were brought over centuries ago. The deepest root is African. And the instruments as well resemble whatever it was slaves were able to get their hands on. If they had a spade or a shovel they would bang that and it would be an instrument. When they were brought over from Africa they had nothing.”
And now they have something: A lasting voice.