In a city that sometimes seems strictly divided along ethnic lines like Miami, one would hardly think that Cubans and Haitians have anything in common. But they do, and much more than they know. The Creole Choir of Cuba, in concert this Sunday in North Miami Beach, is proof of that.
In what is perhaps one of the least-known chapters of the histories of Cuba and Haiti, waves of immigrants from Haiti made their way into Cuba, particularly in the central area of the island known as Camagüey, and contributed to the rich tapestry of Cuban music.
Cuban music in various incarnations, both from the island and from the diaspora, is at the center of another annual edition of Global Cuba Fest (being held through April 6), a musical series put together by the not-for-profit cultural organizations FUNDArte and Miami Light Project in South Florida.
"Haitians see all this with gratitude. They really appreciate that a group of Cubans is promoting this music," says Emilia Díaz Chávez, the 61-year-old musical director of Grupo Vocal Desandann (as the group is known in Cuba), and one of its co-founders, after the Choir's show in Tallahassee on Feb. 25, part of an East Coast tour of the U.S. to promote their second album, Santiman (Real World Records).
"The Cubans, some Cubans, wait for the moment when we play Cuban music, but it gives us a great satisfaction to know that, even though they're just waiting for that music, they have heard what we have done before, and at the end of the show, they have enjoyed a type of music that perhaps by their own volition they would not be inclined to listen to."
Haitian academic Jean-Robert Cadely says that Haitians also have embraced the Choir. "The group is highly regarded by the Haitian community," according to Cadely, associate professor at the Modern Languages Department and African & African Diaspora Studies Program at Florida International University. "The reason is that Haitians view the group as a part of their heritage. They strongly appreciate that the group formed by Cubans of Haitian origin is carrying on and developing Haitian cultural traditions in Cuba."
Although The Creole Choir of Cuba emerged in 1994, during Cuba's "Special Period" of extreme belt-tightening following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which ended all the help that the Soviets had been providing to their Caribbean ally, the legacy of the Haitians in Cuba goes back hundreds of years.
Haitians were first brought to Cuba as slaves during the late 18th century, when their French masters panicked and escaped during the uprisings that would bring independence to Haiti a few years later, in 1804, making it the first independent nation of Latin America and the Caribbean, and the first black-led republic in the world. Later on, and still in the 19th century, Haitians arrived in search of work in the sugar cane fields and in coffee plantations. Finally, in the 20th century and up to around 1958, they fled the terror of dictator François "Papa Doc" Duvalier. These migrations became a trickle after the 1959 Cuban revolution.
But by then, something unique had taken place: generations of Haitians were born on Cuban soil, and although Cubans, they never forgot where their ancestors came from.
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That legacy is what the 10 members (nine of whom are touring) of The Creole Choir of Cuba carry through in its myriad traditional songs from the old motherland, as well as in their original compositions, sung in Creole but accompanied by Cuban musical instruments.
The Creole Choir of Cuba, part of Global Cuba Fest 2013, Sunday at 7:00 p.m., North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. General admission: $10. Info: 305-576-4350; fundarte.us.
--Juan Carlos Pérez-Duthie, artburstmiami.com