The Creole Choir of Cuba
(Theatre Royal, Stratford, part of London Jazz Festival, Wednesday November 17th, review by Jeanie Barton, photo credit: Roger Thomas)
East London was host to an emotionally charged, passionate and energetic production by The Creole Choir of Cuba, also known as Desandann, (descendants of their Haitian ancestors). Originally bought to Cuba to work in near slave conditions in the sugar and coffee plantations, their pained but ultimately uplifting piece of theatre moved the audience to their feet.
The A Capella choir worked their show in two halves; the first predominantly featured freedom songs passed down by their parents and grandparents. The opening number Mangaje ‘Fey’ (faith) was a traditional Haitian folk song. This and all but one of their numbers were sung in Creole, Cuba’s second language. Yordanka Sanchez Fajardo’s piercing operatic soprano voice cut through the smoke filled stage, silencing the audience, followed by full African style harmonies and percussive breathing wrought with harrowing sobs, desperate chants and stamps. It was intense. It was voodoo.
Within the small Victorian theatre the stage was simply set with congas and a few microphones on stands. The choir all used hand held radio microphones enabling them to weave in and out of one another in tableau like movements and almost improvised dance. Golden spots poured on them from above like the Caribbean sun. The women were dressed in long golden brown robes; their heads wrapped in matching cloths and the men in matching shirts with black trousers. This traditional garb complemented the repertoire.
The third number, Maroule sounded more Cuban, it was fronted by Irian Rondon Montejo who looked and sounded somewhat like Omara Portuondo from Buena Vista Social Club. It is clear when you hear songs sung in their language based on 18th-century French, how the cultures have merged to create the passionate almost Parisian grooves of the Cuban music we know and love. It is a heavenly fusion.
I somehow felt I was experiencing the origins of jazz in the flesh - traditionally born from the sophisticated Creole culture, the community was classically trained and blended this knowledge with the soul and passion of blues alongside other influences - the Creole choir’s powerful voices and technical skill created a truly authentic repertoire.
Something else they cannot separate is music from dance. The close of the first half was Tande by Eddy Francois (adapt. Marcelo Andres Luis). Fidel Romero Miranda soloed, jumping down into the auditorium to work the room and then spectacularly back flipping up onto the stage for the close – breathtaking!
The second half saw the cast change into robes of primary colours, with long sparkly New Orleans style beads around their necks, swinging as they sang. They also played more hand held percussion, Marcelo Andres Luis who sang bass played a metal spanner against a metal disk as well as various shakers and guiros.
Stand-out moments were - literally - Unforgettable. They sang Gordon Irving’s ballad made famous by Nat King Cole in English, in close Ellingtonian harmony. Not only did the audience weep but also several members of the choir.
Later on, they invited up on stage two little girls from a local dance troupe – they vigorously danced the two step while everyone clapped their hands – as the show developed, it felt constricted by the confines of the small Victorian proscenium arch theatre. In a friendlier space we could have danced with them as much as they clearly would have liked us to.
It was infectious to witness their organic blend of voice, dance and percussion, for in my view these elements should not be considered in isolation. It is the embodiment of music. As the choir circled the stalls singing a melancholy Cuban encore towards their exit via the lobby, I made a note to myself: book a plane ticket there soon.