[13 September 2011]
The Creole Choir of Cuba makes music that’s not the easiest or most accessible and newcomers to world music may find it daunting. Still, if you’re patient with it, the group’s most recent effort, Tande-La, does reward repeated listenings, though you may find it easier to take in bite-sized portions than as a lengthy whole.
Who are they? The Creole Choir of Cuba consists of six women and four men between the ages of 27 and 61 who began singing in their university choirs. Having endured the collapse of the Cuban economy in 1994 after the Soviet Union disbanded and no longer funded the Cuban government, the singers formed the group Desadann (Creole for “Descendents”) to sing traditional Creole songs with updated modern arrangements. Renamed the Creole Choir of Cuba, the group emerged from the Cuban music scene when they debuted at the Edinburgh Festival in 2009, an appearance which made them hugely popular in England and led to a contract with Peter Gabriel’s Real World label.
The obvious comparison here is to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, another choir who sing traditional songs in new arrangements. There are some similarities, particularly in the way the choir’s female voices take contrasting harmonies to the male ones—especially in a song like “Tande”. The Creole Choir, however, has more of a Caribbean influence. Haiti, in particular, appears in songs like “Tande” and “L’Atibonite Oh”, both of which are actually songs based on Haitian history and culture. You can also hear echoes of Cuban mambo in “Fey”, which is actually a Haitian song that the group rearranges with more of a Cuban feel. Musically, the album is minimalist, with only some minor drums and spare instrumentation, so listeners expecting something more elaborately arranged will find this a bit difficult to listen to at first. If you expect something more intricate like the Buena Vista Social Club or the best recordings of Cuban mambo stars like Beny More or Perez Prado, you might be taken aback by how simplistic the arrangements are. This is vocal music, dependent on the singers, so as long as you can make that adjustment, you will find some fascinating and enthralling moments.
Lyrically, the album is a window into the lives of the Haitian and Creole communities in Cuba. There are songs about the Duvalier regime that tortured and oppressed Haiti for decades, the 1991 military coup that overthrew a democratically elected president and installed a dictatorship, and the life of a famous Haitian singer who ended up dying in poverty. There are also songs about how the poor live, hauling water, scrambling for food and calling for social justice. Most songs are in Creole, which is an amalgam of French, Spanish, and other languages, but a couple, such as “Dulce Embeleco”, are in Spanish. Though the songs about social injustice are good to hear, the most moving are the simpler ones, like “Dulce Embeleco”, which is a love song, or “Peze Café”, about a little boy shouting for his mother after his coffee bag was stolen. The vocal arrangements are designed to highlight the emotions in the songs—witness the melancholy in the women’s voices in “Peze Café” or the exuberant way the men and women sing harmonies in the hopeful anthem “Chen Nan Ren”. The combination of the vocal arrangements and melodies comes together in these songs to make something unique. It really doesn’t sound like any other time or place could have produced some of this intriguing music.
The big problem is in how the album is sequenced. The a cappella tracks are sequenced first and while that’s a strategy that may work better onstage, on disc it becomes hard to listen to. The more rhythmic tracks in the second half are more immediately accessible, but by that point, it’s hard for listeners to get a good feel for how the group’s music works. It would have been better to sequence the album to intersperse the rhythmic tracks like “Neg Anwo” with the more minimalist tracks like “Maroule”. That would have given a more varied and accessible feel to the album. Instead, it ends up sounding at times like a museum piece that’s meant to be appreciated rather than a vibrant musical experience that’s meant to be enjoyed. That does a great disservice to the music, which deserves to be heard by as many listeners as possible.
The decision to sequence the album in such a contrived way is what ultimately makes it hard to recommend wholeheartedly. The Creole Choir of Cuba is a remarkable band and there is a lot to enjoy in their music, but the presentation by Real World leaves something to be desired. There are some truly intoxicating and affecting moments here but the listener is going to have to do some of the work to appreciate them. Tande-La is worth hearing if you’re in an adventurous mood but be prepared to put in some considerable effort. This music, and this group, deserve better.