When they formed in 1994, the Creole Choir of Cuba wanted only to honor the music of their ancestors, who emigrated to Cuba from Haiti in search of work on the country's sugar plantations, or were brought over as slaves.
Their new disc, "Tande-La," released on Peter Gabriel's Real World label, is a joyous fusion of old traditions and new, largely African rhythms. In advance of their Wednesday concert at the Music Center at Strathmore, part of their first-ever North American tour, Choir Director Emilia Diaz Chavez answered our questions by e-mail, with the help of a translator.
What were the daily conditions you were living in like back in 1994, when you got together?
In the 1990s all of us were members of the Regional Choir of Camaguey Province, and were living the normal lives of professional singers in that province.
When you formed, you decided to recreate your ancestors' protest songs. What connections did you see between their conditions and yours?
We recreate and arrange all types of songs which we learned fromour parents and grandparents. Our living conditions are, of course, much better than theirs were, but we formed the group to keep alive the culture and songs which we learned from them. We are connected by the respect with which we are maintaining…their culture.
Creole is the second-most popular language in Cuba, which is something that might surprise most non-Cubans. How prevalent is Haitian culture in Cuba?
Haitian culture in Cuba is prevalent in the form of dance, religion and the music through the fundamental influence of changüí (“CHANG-OO-EEE”). Changüí is very prevalent in the eastern part of Cuba, Guantanamo.
You've spent time in Haiti since the quake. Would you describe the experience?
It was at the same time a sad and comforting experience. Because we could help to give strength to the traumatised people; to give hope to children and young people and make them smile a little and believe than things would become normal again after this terrible disaster.
Have you had any issues, either with the Cuban or the American governments, while setting up or performing on this tour?
We have always been very lucky and managed to obtain our visas to allow us to perform here. It has been a bit complicated sometimes, and as we have been on tour most of this last year it has not always been easy to be in the right place for long enough to allow the various processes to take place, but here we are, and delighted to have the opportunity to make our music for you.
Now that you've had a chance to see a bit of America, what do you find are the biggest differences between what you thought it would be like and how it really is?
We love the North American people, and have always been well received with our music. We did not know about the wonderful autumn tree colors in New England, and have been absolutely fascinated by seeing them as we have traveled on the East Coast. We have been amazed at the openness and friendliness of the children we have met and taught our music to in our music workshops.