El Minnesota de Hoy Review: More Roots and Dreams with Creole Choir of Cuba
Rodolfo Gutierrez, El Minnesota de Hoy 10/27/14
This review was originally written in Spanish. The English translation is below. To read the original article, click here.
There are myriad ways to learn history. There is the one we are taught in school, maybe the official one, unless the teacher or the professor decides to share other visions of history; we can choose texts at random, and become self-taught (Since I am an historian, I had the opportunity to know many people who call themselves historians as a hobby, even though they may be attorneys or economists); but the richest and enriching way to teach it, is through traditions transmitted from one generation to the next. And even better, if it is transmitted through music or by any other artistic expression.
The Ordway Center for the Performing Arts was an extraordinary host for inviting us to learn about Cuba’s history. Just like a few weeks ago (October 5) Nachito Herrera took us on a stroll on the streets of Havana, this time the Creole Choir of Cuba opened our minds and souls to learn about the immigration from Haiti to the island of Cuba. This is something we know little or almost nothing, let alone think about it. But, of course, denizens of the Caribbean islands truly share people and culture, creating unique features which define the region.
The Creole Choir of Cuba was created by a group of descendants of Haitian immigrants in Cuba, to celebrate the history of this group, in Camagüey, the third most important city in Cuba. The group was founded in 1994, during the so called “Special Period,” when the Cuban economy was collapsing due the loss of support by the USSR. Facing the critical conditions endured in the island, with daily power outages, and food rationing, this 10-member group decided to reintroduce sad songs and rhythms created by their ancestors who had suffered slavery and brutal abuse.
Emilia Diaz Chávez, the group’s director, proposed to name it Desandann, which is the Creole word for descendants. And these descendants, the women wearing colorful skirts and blouses, and the men, wearing shirts of exquisite colors, accompanied by the conga drums, “claves” and “güiros,” shared their voices to sing about that little known history of the African immigration to Cuba, who came first from Haiti.
From the Prelude, through the Arrival and continuing with the rest of the program, in the first half, the chants we heard evoked deep pain and sorrow. However, the chants were also imbued with hope and love for life itself. The dance choreography performed by five beautiful singing women, seemed enhanced by a music score followed precisely and with joy. Hips, arms and shoulders moved at the rhythm marked by the conga drums, highlighting the tones, at times very high, sung by five wonderful voices. A perfect ensemble.
The male voices, deep and grave, and in a lower register than normal, completed the mosaic arrangement we witnessed. And a giant video screen showed images of the songs to illustrate the lyrics of Pa gen dlo (No water), Simbi, Boullando (Ball on my back), or Tripot. When the group offered its interpretation of Marasa Elu (A special child), it provides us a brief explanation of its content, about a young orphan girl seeking help. The entire concert hall surrendered to the rhythm, and at this point in the concert, there was a perfect communion between artists and listeners.
A video showed briefly the work of the Creole Choir of Cuba, and its goal to preserve a tradition, by founding a school for young people. Imágenes de Camagüey, from the island, underscore the importance of singing to pass on culture and knowledge. And that set the stage for the second half of the show. At this point, the Creole language of the singing seems almost easy to understand. When Panama Mwen Tonbe (My hat fell off) was performed, we could almost follow the story of a man who lost his Panama’s to the wind in his road from Jacmel to Lavale, asking for it at his return.
But the communion was even greater when the songs were performed in Spanish. Like Cachita se alborotó, when he was listening to maracas y saw the drums player getting excited. Or when Camina como Chencha was executed, many people stood up by their seats to dance, or at least to follow the rhythms with their shoulders. Our performers encouraged the audience to clap their hands, to join in the party, which ended in a great jubilation, when invited to join to dance with them on the stage.
The audience was encouraged to sing along with the group, and at one point, Emilia challenged it to sing at her pitch, but nobody was able to reach the high notes she was asking to imitate, albeit they all tried, generating a multi-color mosaic of voices, out of tune perhaps, but infected by the life and strength which by then had possessed the theater.
When we learned that the group went to Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010’s earthquake, we could realize how that music, those Creole chants, acted not only as testimonies of ancient history, but as a way to alleviate somewhat the pain caused by such horrific ravages. Moreover, we could understand how Haiti’s people continues singing and dancing, to remove the pain that weigh heavily in their hearts, minds and souls. The Creole Choir returned to Cuba bringing Haiti’s contemporaneous rhythms, and feeling that it has grown up by having offered help to their brothers and sisters in disgrace. On the night of October 22, at the Ordway, when we learned about those stories, the Creole Choir gave us a great history lesson of love and sorrow, but above all, of solidarity.
The concert came to a close after a stand up ovation, and one last song, A promise, which made our blood boil and rushing through our arteries, propelled by our heartbeats and; we got the feeling that we would have a heart attack at any moment, when they walked down the aisle among the audience. And one more night fell in the island of Cuba. The Ordway Theater deserves a well earned praise to present such an artistic delight, but above all, to continue to open its doors to these kinds of cultural events. We must remain alert to what they have in store for us in the future. Next February 7, 2015, the series Raíces y Sueños: the: The artistry of Cuba, will feature CONTRA-TIEMPO a world-class dance ensemble from Cuba.
Translation provided by Acentos, Inc.