Feet scrape against concrete in a solar off San Lazaro Street in Havana. Dish towels, underclothes, and a pair of rubber slippers hang from lines strewn above the open courtyard. Two children stand watching from an open doorway as four women, black skin glistening in the afternoon sun, roll shoulders up and back. Chests rise and fall in unison. The lead dancer breaks the rhythm briefly to shoo away a stray dog with her foot.
There is no music. A full rhythm section used to accompany the dancers until a neighbor complained about the noise. The director of this Haitian-Cuban troupe, the Mackandal Yoruba Company, is waiting for a letter from the Ministry of Culture to take to government zoning officials asking them to authorize Haitian drumming in the neighborhood.
"If Fidel talks about massifying culture," director Jacinto Herrera complains, "why is he going to say there can't be music here? If the police and the government shut us down, we'll play at the Malecón, but we are going to play."
Six days a week, the Haitian-descended dancers of Mackandal Yoruba crowd into this little courtyard in the hope of one day gaining official recognition. So goes the struggle for Haitian culture to survive now as it has since the first wave of immigrants arrived more than 200 years ago.
"I was amazed to see how these guys kept the Haitian culture alive," says Jan Mapou, director of Miami's Haitian dance troupe Sosyete Koukouy, who traveled to Cuba last year for a reunion with his mother, whom he had not seen since she migrated to Cuba when he was a child, more than 50 years ago. Mapou's parents, like so many other Haitians, went to cut sugar cane on the wealthier island in the decades before the revolution. There, in Camagüey, Mapou also met the Haitian-Cuban singing ensemble Grupo Vocal Desandann. "They sang in Kreyol and Spanish and even in English," he marvels. "They told me it's natural; it flows from generation to generation."
For the children of Haiti, says Mapou, the revolution has been a mixed blessing. Conditions in the cane fields were so harsh, and the immigrants who came to work there so desperate, that gains in literacy, education, health care, and professional opportunities nearly outweigh the constraints under the Castro regime.
"You could see that they were not happy because of restrictions, because of the conditions they were living in over there," reports Mapou. "But when they were comparing the past and the present, you could see some light of happiness."
The lifting of restrictions on our own freedom here in Miami-Dade County has brought us the light of Grupo Vocal Desandann, a group Miami Light Project executive director Beth Boone has long wished to present. While on a five-hour layover at the airport on their way to a show in Columbus, Ohio, the ten-person ensemble gave a preview to unsuspecting travelers and workers at Miami International Airport.
Setting up in front of the International Hotel off Concourse D, Vocal Desandann launched into a set of four songs from Cuba and Haiti. A waitress from Camagüey rushed out to find the source of the familiar sounds. Haitian airport personnel gathered to hear the traditional melodies. Each time the program drew to a close, the impromptu audience called for more. No matter what laws dictate their silence, the voices of Haiti will always be heard.
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