"Cuba’s Creole Choir Celebrates Haiti and Cuba – in Song"
Story & photographs by José Pérez
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Comprised of residents from the Cuban city of Camagüey, all of whom are of Haitian ancestry, the Creole Choir of Cuba had been on tour promoting their latest CD, Santiman. Kelso Riddell, tour manager for the group, said that the group started the tour on February 18th and had performed in places like Chicago, Newport News, as well as Cornell and Clemson Universities. For the Creole Choir’s founder Emilia Diaz Chavez, the ambitious trip was “an extraordinary experience.”
“It gave us the possibility of getting to know different parts of the United States,” said Diaz.
The people that came out on a balmy March evening to see the Creole Choir perform were diverse but were mostly either Haitian or Cuban.
Jan Mapou, owner of a bookstore in Little Haiti and an active cultural force in South Florida’s growing Haitian community, came to see old friends. Mapou first met the group during a trip to Cuba, where some figures estimate that approximately one million Cubans speak Creole, in the late 1990’s. A few years later, the Creole Choir – then known by its original name, Desandann – came to perform in Miami. “It was the first time that the Haitian community [in Miami] discovered them,” said Mapou.
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The exchanges between the people of Cuba and Haiti are nothing new. Inhabitants of both countries frequently crossed the narrow 45 mile Windward Passage long before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. The first recorded interaction between Cuba and Haiti came in the earliest day of the Spanish conquest when the legendary Taino cacique, or chief, Hatuey departed from Haiti to warn his brethren and compatriots in Cuba about the dangers of the strange men with hairy faces and shiny head coverings. The process accelerated during the Haitian Revolution at the end of the 18th century when French landowners fled to Eastern Cuba with their families and the human beings they kept as slaves. The next big wave of Haitian emigration to Cuba came during the 1920’s and 1930’s when over a quarter of million Haitians fled the U.S.-occupation of their country.
Yolande Thomas, who is a leading member of the local Haitian folkloric group Sosyete Koukouy with Mapou, said that the contact between Cubans, Haitians, and Cubans of Haitian descent was interrupted significantly during the years of the Duvalier regime in Haiti. Nonetheless, said Thomas, the Creole Choir’s music is “very deep in Haiti,” thanks in large part to the legacy and lessons of their parents and grandparents who grew up in Haiti before moving to Cuba.
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Singing songs in Spanish and Kreyol and interplaying rhythms like konpa, merengue, and guaracha, the Creole Choir entertained the crowd that grew as the sun set slowly over the palm trees surrounding the North Beach Bandshell. Concert-goers spent most of their evening on their feet dancing and singing in unison to call-and-response chants and enjoying the revelry of the marriage of two of the Caribbean’s most intriguing cultures. As an additional homage to their final night in the U.S., the group offered “a gift” for those in the audience that did not speak either Kreyol or Spanish: a mesmerizing acapella cover of the Nat King Cole classic, “Unforgettable.” The evening closed as the choir filed off of the stage and into the audience singing Miguel Matamoros’ poignant “Juramento” (If love makes one feel deep pains / And if condemned to live in my misery / I'd tell you, my love, that for your love / Even my blood would boil in my arteries). Few were the dry eyes among those present.
Though not surprised by the enthusiastic reception the Creole Choir received, Diaz was pleased by the outpouring of affection. “Language is not a barrier,” she said. “Music is universal and it reaches all of our audiences.”