Thursday, October 27, 2011

Cuban musicians embrace their Haitian roots

The members of the Creole Choir of Cuba aren't just Cuban fans of Haitian music: They're ethnic Haitians, descended from refugees who fled to Cuba in the early 1800s and settled in the city of Camaguey. Courtesy photo.

North County Times
(Serving North San Diuego & SW Riverside Counties)

By JIM TRAGESER jtrageser@nctimes.com North County Times | Posted: Thursday, October 27, 2011 6:00 am |

Creole music is to Haiti what son is to Cuba, flamenco to Spain, blues or bluegrass to the United States.

Both the language and the traditional music of Haiti are called Creole, and both the language and the music are uniquely Haitian mixtures of the French spoken by the European colonizers of the western half of the island of Hispaniola and the numerous languages brought to Haiti by slaves from Africa.

So to find a musical outfit called the Creole Choir of Cuba (playing Tuesday at Mandeville Auditorium at UC San Diego) is a bit like finding a blues band in Belgrade or a bluegrass band in Japan.

Except the members of the Creole Choir of Cuba aren't just Cuban fans of Haitian music: They're ethnic Haitians, descended from refugees who fled to Cuba in the early 1800s and settled in the city of Camaguey. Their music is their way of embracing their heritage and keeping it alive.

Emilia Diaz Chavez, the choir's founder and director, said in an email exchange (with the assistance of a translator) that Cubans celebrate their family ethnic histories in ways that would seem familiar to most Americans.

"In Cuba, many events celebrate the cultures of various ethnic groups, and Haitian culture also has several special spaces dedicated to it, such as 'the Feast of Fire' in Santiago de Cuba, 'Eva Gaspar' in Ciego de Avila and 'The Days of Haitian Culture' in Havana."

According to the band's official biography, the Creole Choir was formed in 1994 by Diaz Chavez out of the existing Haitian ethnic singing groups, which she wrote are popular even among Cubans not of Haitian descent.

"They want to know information about the Haitians and their descendants in Camaguey. The stories of our journeys here, which are diverse and adventurous. Culturally, there is much to know because we are the country's oldest Haitian dance group, based in Camaguey for over 80 years."

Living in a nation like Cuba, known globally as one of the most musically rich cultures, pays dividends even for a band such as the Creole Choir, Diaz Chavez wrote.

"Music is part of the life of the Cuban people. Every day is filled with cheer and dancing in our community, so it is a natural inspiration for our work."

And the two islands' music developed along similar paths, particularly in the religious traditions that fused Catholicism with African beliefs.

"There are many similarities between musical Cuban Santeria and Haitian Vousdous as to the ritual ceremonies and the act of singing to their respective gods. The ceremonies in Haiti are more holy, or 'Iwas,' which is something that our parents have passed to us and our generation now safeguards."

One of the challenges of trying to preserve Haitian music from Cuba is trying to keep up with current developments in Haitian popular music. Diaz Chavez wrote that this can be difficult.

"It is not possible to follow the Haitian music scene directly from my house because I do not hear much the broadcasting directly. We keep a connection through music recorded and obtained in Haiti or other countries that is passed to our friends who live outside Cuba and brought to us. When we were in New York in June, although only in town for 24 hours, our priority was to find music to bring back to Cuba to aid us in our work. That music is shared in the Haitian community in Cuba. There is also a lot of Haitian music produced in Cuba which we have access to."

And while the universal access of the Internet has been slower to make its way into Cuban society than elsewhere in the West, with the ability of young people today to hear music from any part of the world, Diaz Chavez said she does not think this exposure to various folk music will weaken the appeal of local folk styles.

"Each musician has his own charm, and our identity is based on geography."

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