This 10-piece vocal group has the potential to become one of the best-known choirs in the world, a Caribbean answer to South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo. And they have an intriguing history, explaining their versatile and often unexpected approach.
They may be based in the old Cuban colonial town of Camagüey, but their name is misleading – their roots are not Cuban, but Haitian.
Back in Cuba they are known as Desandann (“The Descendants”), a reminder that they are the descendants of African slaves who were transported to Haiti but then moved or escaped to Cuba.
Like all good choirs, they are best experienced live, especially as the six women and four men in the group are remarkable for their rousing stagecraft and ability to display their thrilling harmony work on anything from African-influenced dance pieces to songs with Western and Caribbean influences.
Here, on their second album, the emphasis is different. The choir stresses its Haitian roots, but also the subtlety and sophistication of their singing. The producer is John Metcalf, who has worked with Blur and John Cale and provided most of the arrangements for Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back. He was clearly eager to show that these singers are as remarkable for their thoughtful, painful laments as much as the party songs.
The album starts with a series of songs written by the choir’s leader Emilia Díaz Chávez, based on the writings of a Haitian politician.
Preludo is a duet between two women singers that sounds as pure and clear as great church music. But then the male voices join in, with percussion backing, as the full choir demonstrates complex, rousing harmonies.
From then on the album constantly changes direction, from the swinging, Cuban-influenced Camina Como Chencha to the cheerful but stately Haitian history lesson Panama Mwen Tonbe.
The pained and then exuberant Pou Ki Ayiti Kriye (“Why Does Haiti Cry?”) starts as an exquisite lament but speeds up to an exhilarating climax.
Metcalf’s production involves the occasional use of jazzy piano, trumpet, flute and the sound of wind or birds. But a choir this good doesn’t really need additional help.