Creole Choir Boasts Roots In Haiti, Fame In Cuba

Deemed 'exhilarating' and 'celebratory' by music critics, the Creole Choir of Cuba has brought, to the world stage, sounds and rhythms of Haiti's immigrant community in Cuba. The group's 10 members are descendants of West Africans who were enslaved in the Caribbean. They sing songs of their ancestors, infusing them with contemporary sounds. They're on their first major U.S. tour. In a performance chat, Michel Martin hosts the choir, their director Emilia Diaz Chavez and their tour manager Kelso Riddell.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Today, a special performance by one of Cuba's most talked about musical exports, the Creole Choir of Cuba.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EDEM CHANTE")

CREOLE CHOIR OF CUBA: (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: This is the song, "Edem Chante," or "Listen to Us" from their album, "Tande-la." The 10-member choir is composed of descendents of Haitian immigrants, who themselves were descendents of West Africans who were enslaved in the Caribbean. A community of Haitians settled in Cuba at the beginning of the 20th century to work on the coffee and sugar cane plantations. The Creole Choir of Cuba is known in that country as Grupo Vocal Desandann, literally meaning descendents. They've preserved the songs of their ancestors, infusing their music with new and original rhythms and sounds.

Now the Creole Choir of Cuba is on their first major tour of the U.S., with some 30 performances in 21 cities. Choir director Emilia Diaz Chavez, and most of the group are not as comfortable with interviews in English, so tour manager Kelso Riddell is going to be chatting with us.

Welcome to you. Thank you for coming.

KELSO RIDDELL: Thank you very much. We're very pleased to be here.

MARTIN: I understand that a day after the earthquake hit Haiti last year in January, the choir arrived there traveling with a group of doctors from Cuba to the capital, Port-au-Prince. And I understand, if I have this right, that they were some of the first to arrive after the disaster. Can you tell us about that?

RIDDELL: Yes. Cuba was the first country to react with help to the Haitian people and sent a brigade of doctors and medics in to help. And the choir were asked if they would come and help, as part of Cuba's mental health program, to sing to people and to help them and try and give them some kind of sense that, in the future, things would get back to normal and particularly to help young children, kids.

MARTIN: And to sing to lift people's spirits?

RIDDELL: Yes.

MARTIN: And also to...

RIDDELL: To make them feel - make them smile again.

MARTIN: Yes. And so I understand that the choir would be willing to sing one of the songs that they sang in Haiti to...

RIDDELL: Oh, I'm sure they'd be delighted.

MARTIN: And I believe this is "Marassa Elu."

RIDDELL: It's the name of a saint. Yes.

MARTIN: It's the name of a saint?

RIDDELL: Yes.

MARTIN: Oh, I see. That protects orphan children?

RIDDELL: Yes.

MARTIN: All right. "Marassa Elu," and here it is. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARASSA ELU")

CUBA: (Singing in Spanish)

MARTIN: That was beautiful. That was remarkable. The choir has received great reviews. The New York Times called it celebratory; the Boston Globe, exhilarating, and you can certainly see why. Will you tell us a little bit about the history of the group?

RIDDELL: Well, everybody in the choir is actually a member of the Regional Choir of Camaguey in Central Cuba, and Emilia is the director of that as well. And 17 years ago, this particular group, who all have Haitian origin, decided that they would like to maintain and keep up the Haitian tradition and culture. And the Creole songs that many of them learned as children from their parents and grandparents, and so they decided to start this specialist group. And they're also known as the Desandann, or the descendants.

MARTIN: How would they describe their style - their musical style?

RIDDELL: Well, they sing in all different genres because Haiti has such a varied and rich, rich culture musically. There are songs which make you happy. There are songs which make you laugh. There are songs which make you cry. And there are songs which make you just get up and want to dance. And it's absolutely fantastic that it's such a wide of variety. And it's amazing that, you know, these people are keeping this up, so, and letting people in the rest of the world know...

MARTIN: Well, tell me though about the history - a little bit of the history of how - one of the other names who were the descendants but...

RIDDELL: Desandann.

MARTIN: Desandann. But the history of how the people of Haiti came to be in Cuba. Were they originally brought as slaves to work on the plantation - the sugar cane plantations?

RIDDELL: Well, a long time ago, Haiti was a French colony and slaves were brought by the French colonists to work on both sugar and coffee plantations. Two hundreds years ago Haiti produced half the world's coffee and half the world's sugar. And then when Haiti became the first black republic in the world it became shunned by the international community for many years and still has been. And a lot of the Creole people migrated with initially with their slave owners to Cuba. And then in the last century, in the 1920s voluntarily left when things were very rough for them.

MARTIN: So that return trip to Haiti after the earthquake must've been a very powerful experience.

RIDDELL: Yes, and they've all got families and friends and cousins and so forth and they have a lot of connection there. They've all been to Haiti lots of times.

MARTIN: I understand that the time that the choir spent in Haiti left a powerful impression. And one of the singers, Teresita Romero Miranda, wrote a song based on your experiences...

RIDDELL: Yes.

MARTIN: In Haiti.

RIDDELL: Yes. Well, this song that Teresita wrote is called "Pou Ki Ayiti Kriye," which means why is Ayiti crying? Why should Ayiti suffer? And it's a very new song that has only been sung in public twice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POU KI AYITI KRIYE")

CUBA: (Singing) (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: That is the Creole Choir of Cuba. They are in their first major tour of the U.S. - with some 30 performances in 21 cities. Somehow we managed to get them to come into our Washington, D.C. studios to visit with us. Their tour manager Kelso Riddell is helping us discuss. And, you know, it's just - the virtuosity is remarkable. And obviously, as we mentioned, you're on your first major U.S. and the critics are raving. I was wondering how the group is viewed in Cuba. Is it just kind of like yeah, great, you know, or it's just, of course, this is what we have, or are they similarly appreciated?

RIDDELL: No. In Cuba, one of the things that's unique about this group is that they are a group of people who are at the same time Cuban but they're Haitian-Cuban, and there's nobody else that I know of who is singing this kind of music. And not only keeping it alive but also introducing it to the rest of the world, and I think it sounds simply fantastic. Every time I hear that song it makes me cry. And that's the message that these people are bringing to people, even if you can't understand Creole, part of music is to move people and I find that that moves me.

MARTIN: Why a cappella?

RIDDELL: That's what they do. In fact, when you listen carefully, it sounds like an orchestra is playing with them.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

RIDDELL: And some people ask me when we were on tour in Holland, they said, do you play to a tape? And I said no, not quite. And then they said well, we couldn't see the orchestra. Where are they? And I said, this is the orchestra. This is music.

MARTIN: And finally, and it's been so great to have you come by and see us, and we are so thankful. It's not new news that relations between the U.S. and Cuba are not always as - well, they're difficult. And I'm just wondering is there a hope that seeing more people from Cuba and having relationships with people - cultural relationships - will be helpful.

RIDDELL: Yes. Things have been difficult in the past and it has been very difficult on occasion to get through the necessary documentation to get people into this country. But things are improving and I think that little by little, as attitudes change, people will find that they want to hear more of this kind of thing, they want to have more interchange with countries like Cuba. And I think that this kind of thing just helps international relations.

MARTIN: And how are the tour members finding the U.S.? How are they enjoying...

RIDDELL: Well, let me ask that. (Foreign language spoken)

CUBA: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, we're glad to hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: We're glad to hear that. So I understand that you have one more sing for us. What will it be? It's "Lumane Casimir," is that?

RIDDELL: "Lumane Casimir."

MARTIN: "Lumane Casimir." Okay.

RIDDELL: Yes. This is the song a singer from Haiti who became very famous and then died in poverty.

MARTIN: It's a true story?

RIDDELL: So it's a true story.

MARTIN: It's a true story.

RIDDELL: Yes, it's a true story. Most of the songs that are sung have a little story attached and that's this story.

MARTIN: Kelso Riddell is the tour manager of the 10-member Creole Choir of Cuba. The group is currently on their first major tour of the U.S. with some 30 performances in 21 cities. They are also touring in support of their album "Tandela." And we are going to hear "Lumane Casimir."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUMANE CASIMIR")

CUBA: (Singing) (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: That was Creole Choir of Cuba who joined us in Studio 4A for a special performance and chat. And remember, with TELL ME MORE the conversation never ends. To tell us more, you can call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Please remember to leave us your name. You can also visit us online. Just go to npr.org and select TELL ME MORE under the Programs tab. You can also follow us on Facebook and on Twitter at TELL ME MORE/NPR. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUMANE CASIMIR")

CUBA: (Singing) (Singing in foreign language)

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