Creole Choir of Cuba live @BarbicanCentre, London (Feb 8) | Gig Review

As far as lessons go in show-stopping stamina, I doubt I could find much better than the outstanding Creole Choir of Cuba. The group sing freedom songs handed down by their Haitian forbears, sent to Cuba to work in slave-like conditions on the island’s plantations. Brief clips of the Choir online don’t really do them justice. To fully enjoy the explosion of colour, sound and movement that is the CCC, the live show is a must.

Last Tuesday 8 February the Choir graced the Barbican stage in a flurry of Kente Cloth and dazzling harmonies underpinned by solid-as-a-rock bass voices. Each member had at least one solo, further revealing the diverse vocal styles within the group; from classical to African folk to Jazz. The set was almost completely acappella save for some unobtrusive yet stimulating percussion.

The Choir opened with the plaintive ‘Mangaje’, a song reflecting the confusion felt by African slaves when they first hit the shores of Haiti. The performance was driven by a mournful energy, none more so evident than in the heart-rending lead vocal by one of the tenors. The Francophone influence of the group’s ancestral island was all over ‘Edem Chante’.

In fact a CCC show is a truly pan-Afro-American experience. In addition to the French connection, there are traces of Brazilian rhythms such as Baião (as in ‘Mawoule’) as well as the more typically Cuban Cha-cha-cha, the common denominator being the extensive impact of African beats. Through the Creole language the Choir address the indignity of slavery, colonisation and poverty. However, these are also songs of resilience; the triumph and strength of the human spirit.

Don’t believe for one moment that the adversity that characterises the CCC’s repertoire makes for a sombre show. Quite the contrary; an evening with the Choir is a very lively affair. Their simple but exhilarating choreography alternately echoes the defiance of a song’s sentiment or just flows with the groove. If it wasn’t for the thoroughly British reserve that kept the audience in their seats for most of the concert, I was frequently tempted to jump up and shake down. Thankfully, the group eventually coaxed the inappropriately sober crowd to abandon their inhibitions and dance. In turn some of the audience responded with the kind of brio that suggested that they were merely waiting for the cue to get down, a few even being invited on stage.

Demonstrating their great versatility, as part of the generous encore the Choir treated us to an unequivocally stunning rendition of Nat King Cole’s ‘Unforgettable’, before throwing into the bargain some more recognisably Cuban rhythms replete with enviable salsa moves. It was nearly the end of the show yet the choir showed no signs of flagging, vocally or otherwise. Instead, as my companion for the night pointed out, their enthusiasm appeared to increase as the night wore on.

Lasting well over an hour and a half (excluding interval) alas, as the concert drew to its finale the Choir dispersed throughout the auditorium, serenading their rapt audience and shaking outstretched hands. As they exited the hall, they took a little piece of us with them.

The Creole Choir of Cuba possesses so much joie de vivre as to lend an evening in their company a celebratory air, despite the heavy subject matter of their songs. In their own exuberantly polished way, the group convey the quintessentially African ethos that regardless of life’s many tribulations there’s reason enough to feel jubilant and victorious about staying alive to fight another day. A world class act.

Photo by Sven Creutzmann

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