The Glasshouse plays host to a unique choral group this month – the Creole Choir of Cuba. Eugenia Alfonso, spokesperson for the choir, describes the wonderful harmonies and rich sound produced by this talented vocal group …
What is your role with the Creole Choir of Cuba?
I’m the company spokesperson, because none of the choir speak English.
How and when did the choir actually form?
They are all classically trained musicians, and they belong to the Provincial Choir of Camaguey – which is their home town. That choir has been going for 35 years. The director of that choir, Emilia Chavez, decided in 1994 to form the Creole Choir of Cuba, formed solely of descendants of Haitians – there were a large number of Haitians in the original choir.
So this choir is a spin-off of the original choir, which sings classical choral music. They started this group, which sings Haitian songs and Creole songs together, bringing the songs they would sing at home with their grandparents and their parents into a more public arena.
Tell us about the members of the choir …
There are 10 members: 6 women and 4 men. Two play percussion; the others have hand held percussion that are played at some point through the songs, but most of the songs are formed through vocal harmonies.
It’s very much an a cappella sound, but it’s incredible. When you listen to it, you can’t grasp that there are two drums in the background and the rest are all voices.
The youngest member is 27 and the eldest is 62, so there’s a smattering of age as well.
The Cuban name for the choir is ‘Desandann’. Does this literally mean ‘descendants’?
Yes. That is the original name of the choir, and it was a very natural, organic name. This name says a lot to the Cuban audience – they understand what desandann means, and it’s very similar in Spanish, French and Creole. It describes who they are.
In terms of an international audience, desandann is really quite difficult to understand or say or remember, because we don’t have this idea of Haitian immigrants in the UK, or the US or Australia. They decided to change the name of the choir, so we know exactly who they are – the Creole Choir of Cuba.
Describe the sound of the choir’s new album, Tande-La …
The album is quite an interesting one. It came about very rapidly from them playing at the Edinburgh Festival and WOMAD in 2009. Peter Gabriel saw them singing and invited them down to the west country and the UK. They performed in August, and by September they were recording the album!
It was an album done straight off the bat, but at the same time, it’s a great album that samples the range that the choir cover.
You may think of Haitian music and think that’s just one type of song, but some of the songs have a Cuban influence, because with Cuba and Haiti there’s been a kind of cross-germination of musical influences.
There’s also evidence of African roots – there’s a soloist singing out, and then the chorus responds to them. This follows along the lines of slave chants while they’re working in the fields.
There’s a huge variety – not only in styles and rhythms, but in the singers themselves. Every song gives a showcase of each of the singers as well. It’s an interesting ride to listen to it!
The choir’s music obviously taps very deeply into their roots as the descendants of Haitian immigrants and all the experiences their ancestors had working the coffee and sugar plantations in Cuba …
Yes. The important part of what Haitian and Creole music gives you is a narrative. Every single song is a story – not just a few lyrics and sound married together. They are a narrative, they tell a story and every song has a message.
These songs draw on history, as well as contemporary times. They use songs that were sung 200 years ago and they have some modern compositions from the choir themselves.
So, the songs draw on the very convoluted history that Haiti had – of slavery, of independence, of corruption etc. But most importantly, they show that they have amazing creativity and strength of spirit nevertheless. This is the message that underlies the whole album: “Listen to us – we’ve got something to say even though we’ve had a rough run.”
Do the performers mostly sing in Creole? I understand it’s a really culturally interesting language, reflecting a mixture of French and African roots?
Yes. They sing in Creole and they throw in a couple of Cuban songs as well. But it’s essentially the Creole language coming through … which isn’t as strange as it sounds. Audiences respond even if they don’t understand what’s being sung, because of the strength of the music and the vocal harmonies.
The Creole language is a real mixture, and each island has its own type of Creole too – so it’s not just one type! Haitian Creole is quite French.
The choir has just had their first tour of the UK during January and February. How did the tour go?
It’s gone down a storm! There was obviously apprehension at the beginning of the tour – they were a bit nervous and not knowing what to expect. The big finish was when we hit the Barbican in London. It went perfectly – it couldn’t have gone down better at the Barbican. It was fantastic, and the feedback after the performances was positive and strong. It really spread a great enthusiasm within the choir.
The touring must have been something of a culture shock for the choir members?
Yes. And coming from a provincial town … it’s like the second or third city of Cuba, but it’s still very small compared to European places.
To be honest, they’re just such an amazing bunch … they’re so engaging and lively and they’ve taken everything in their stride. I think the cold was an interesting experience for them – they’re not used to these temperatures, and they’re very much looking forward to Australia!
And this will be the choir’s very first visit to Australia?
Yes – the first time. It’s the furthest away they’ve been from home. It’s a very exciting time for them!
What do you think Australian audiences will take away from experiencing the choir’s performances?
I think it is something that will target the emotions. Even if you’re the hardest person and not easily moved – you don’t cry in movies – you won’t necessarily cry, but you’ll come out feeling an emotional movement in you. It’s definitely an impact.
Thank you Eugenia. All the best with the Australian tour.
The Creole Choir of Cuba will be performing at the Glasshouse on Wednesday, April 6, at 8pm.
Tickets cost $54.90 adults and $49.90 concession.
Visit www.glasshouse.org.au or call the Box Office on 6581 8888 for more details.
Interview by Jo Atkins.