"A potent force of positivity" - that's what The Guardian newspaper called The Creole Choir of Cuba when they emerged in the UK in 2010 with their first international release, Tande-La. The album won much acclaim; it was "one of the outstanding releases of the year" (The Sunday Times). They performed on Later with Jools Holland on BBC Two and recorded radio sessions with the likes of Mark Lamarr for BBC Radio 2 who described the session as "a mesmerizing experience ... astonishing stuff … absolutely extraordinary." The Choir went on to amaze audiences across the UK with their moving live shows, such as at the London Jazz Festival, the Barbican, Celtic Connections, and more recently, at the Tower of London for the BT River of Music festival.
On Santiman, freedom songs that have been passed down through generations of Haitian emigrants in Cuba are brought to life with vibrant harmonies, lilting melodies and rich, deep Caribbean rhythms. A hefty dose of Cuban flair creates a rich, soulful sound that evokes their proud history of resistance and resilience. The album also includes an original song written in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, where the Choir visited and undertook humanitarian efforts.
The members of the Choir are descendants of former freed slaves from Haiti. They are people twice exiled: first to Haiti from Africa through the iniquitous slave trade; then from Haiti to Cuba tricked into second slavery on Cuban sugar plantations by their French masters after the Haitian Revolution of 1790. Other Haitians arrived in the 20th century fleeing political upheaval, poverty and oppression during the barbaric regime of Papa Doc Duvalier which held power from the 1950s to 70s, marked by reigns of terror and the brutality of his private militia, the Tonton Macoutes.
The Choir hails from Cuba's third city, Camagüey, an old colonial town which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 for its iconic architecture, where the singers have studied music to university level and are members of the Provincial Choir, which their leader Emilia Chavez directs. Desandann (the original Cuban name of The Creole Choir of Cuba) emerged out of this choir in 1994, a difficult time for Cubans when the economy fell into a black hole following the end of the USSR and of Soviet support for the revolution. Food was in short supply, while homes and work places often went dark due to lack of electricity. The singers decided to re-forge the resistance songs and laments of their forebears and to celebrate the history of their Haitian descendants.
Santiman was recorded at Real World Studios in Wiltshire, and produced by composer/arranger John Metcalfe (Morrissey, Blur, John Cale, Peter Gabriel). The arrangements for Santiman show an enrichment of the group's vocal harmonies through the addition of piano, flute and trumpet. Co-incidentally, during the Choir's recording session in The Big Room, a group of fellow musicians were in another of Real World's studios exploring the links between Cuba and West Africa as part of London's 2012 Cultural Olympiad celebrations. The parallels were clear, and the musicians naturally came together to experiment in an informal, relaxed atmosphere. From this session, flautist Dramane Dembele (from Burkina Faso) and trumpet player Paul Bilson (born in Ghana, now UK-based) feature on the album. The brilliant jazz pianist/composer Tom Cawley (who joined Peter Gabriel on his New Blood orchestral album and tour) brings his distinct virtuosity to two tracks, "Simbi" and "Balada de Annaise".
The poignant songs on the album – many handed down through their families and learned from their grandparents – vividly express a broad range of emotion in both Haitian Creole (a mix of French, English and West African languages) and Spanish. Stories about survival despite abject poverty and potent cries from the heart mingle with extremely humorous and celebratory songs about everyday life.
"Santiman gives us great hope and joy. These songs are part of a dream of being able to record our experience after the fateful earthquake. We are certain that this record will be our best so far, because it comes from our hearts." – Emilia Diaz Chavez, Director, The Creole Choir of Cuba
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