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8226: Cuba's Grupo Vocal Desandann (fwd)

From: leonie hermantin <lhermantin@hotmail.com>

Cuba's Grupo Vocal Desandann
The grandchildren of Haitian slaves, they bridge the chasms of two cultures 
through song

When Grupo Vocal Desandann, an ensemble of Haitian-Cuban singers, gave a 
brief concert during a stopover at Miami International Airport last 
Thursday, they found that listeners from two different islands wanted to 
claim the music for their own.

Among the small crowd that gathered to listen to Desandann sing 
Spanish-accented Creole songs was Elie Querette, a Haitian-American skycap.

``I'd like them to stay here or in Haiti and not go back to Cuba,'' Querette 
said, beaming with pride. ``They sing so beautifully.''

Cuban immigrant Nancy Otero, from Desandann's home town of Camagüey, hugged 
the singers and took photos with them.

``My affection has always been the same for my people, my country, my 
Camagüey,'' Otero said. ``Their music is beautiful -- and it comes from my 

The grandchildren of Haitian immigrants to Cuba, the members of Desandann 
embody two oft-conflicting communities in Miami. Yet they also represent 
experiences that Cubans and Haitians have in common: of immigration, 
diaspora, families separated by economic and political difficulties, and the 
role of culture in maintaining identity.


And that capacity to build bridges is one of the primary reasons the Miami 
Light Project brings Desandann to Miami on Thursday for four days of 
concerts, workshops and receptions.

Emilia Díaz Chávez, Desandann's director and founder, acknowledged the 
group's links to Haitians and Cubans here, but said its mission was musical, 
not diplomatic.

``Yes, we are Cubans, and we are also descendants of Haitians,'' Chávez said 
over lunch at a Cuban restaurant in the airport. ``But our primary mission 
is to sing. We didn't come here to unite people. Although if we could help 
unite people that would be wonderful.''

The relationship between Cuba and Haiti is a little-known chapter of 
Caribbean history. In the late 1790s, the Haitian Revolution sent an 
estimated 30,000 plantation owners and their slaves fleeing to Cuba, and 
thousands more came in the early 20th Century, when American companies 
expanding sugar production in Cuba needed new reserves of cheap labor.

Most settled in the eastern province of Oriente. They were kept there first 
by economics, as most were too poor to leave, and then by politics -- in 
1959, the Haitian government cut off relations with Cuba.


Today, some estimates say their descendants account for nearly one-tenth of 
the Cuban population. But even as they adapted to their new country, 
Haitians preserved their culture, their language and their memories.

``I remember that at the end of each year, my grandmother always cried 
thinking of her family,'' says Chávez, 49. ``You could say that in Haiti it 
wasn't possible for them to work, that it was very underdeveloped, but at 
the same time that's their native country. So I always understood how sad it 
is to be scattered in a place that doesn't really belong to you.''

Chávez, a graduate of Cuba's national school of art, founded Desandann -- a 
phonetic transliteration of the French word for descendant -- in 1994, when 
she realized that everyone in a chorus she directed was of Haitian ancestry. 
The timing couldn't have been better as it coincided with an era of renewed 
connections for Cuba's Haitians: In the mid-'90s, the two countries renewed 
diplomatic relations and Haitians began traveling to Cuba to find their 

``After Castro took power there was no relation with Cuba, so for 40 years 
there was no communication and everybody lost trace of everybody,'' says Jan 
Mapou, who heads Sosyete Koukouy, a Miami-based Haitian dance, music and 
theater ensemble which is co-hosting Desandann's visit. ``Now you have 
thousands of Haitians looking for their [families] in Cuba.''


Among them is Mapou, who traveled to Camagüey in 1999 to find his mother. 
Mapou says he was deeply moved to find not only his mother and siblings he 
had never met, but also a strong Haitian community.

``They are Haitian -- I can feel it,'' Mapou said. ``The minute they start 
talking Creole, even though they talk in a broken accent, I feel that this 
is me, my country, my language, and these are my brothers and sisters.''

Among the most powerful representatives of that community was Desandann, 
which sang for him on that first visit. Since then, news of Desandann 
performances in Haiti and New York has spread via Creole radio and 

``We know what they have been doing in Cuba to keep our culture alive, and 
we feel very proud of them,'' Mapou says.

``Haitians are very excited and curious about them,'' assures Marlene 
Bastien, executive director of FAMN, Haitian Women of Miami. ``It's like 
finding your long-lost brothers and sisters. It's an unprecedented event.''


Miami Light is hoping Desandann will draw a positive reaction from Haitians 
and Cubans, with the aim of sparking a dialogue between the communities. To 
this end the group has arranged a roundtable with representatives from 
Haitian, Cuban and arts communities.

Desandann will appear in venues central to the Haitian community, like 
Little Haiti's Notre Dame de Haiti church and Mapou's bookstore, Librarie 
Mapou. Other appearances, like Friday's concert at Coral Gables 
Congregational Church, are meant to welcome Cuban-American and general 

``I truly believe that the exchange of art and ideas is a promoter of 
democracy,'' says Beth Boone, Miami Light's executive director. ``We've 
never been on the same page in Miami about the differences that come from 
someone feeling sensitive about an issue, and the fact that this has been an 
astoundingly intolerant community when it comes to differences of opinion.''


Boone has found support for that view in some new places. Jorge Mursuli, the 
Cuban-American chairman of SAVE Dade, who a year ago said it was too soon 
for Cuban Americans to accept Cuban artists here, now says, ``I think it's 
time we start to identify what our differences are and what the things that 
unify us are.

``But I would hope that we try to educate people on both sides. We don't 
have the luxury of seeing [Cuba] just as a political issue, because we also 
have family ties. So it is a complex perspective.''

Regardless of personal politics, anyone who has left one country for another 
can identify with what Chávez felt the first time she took Desandann to 
Haiti in 1996.

``For me it was like my grandmother in Heaven, who died 20 years before, was 
happy and smiling,'' Chávez says. ``Because even if she was never able to 
see her country again, at least her granddaughter was finally able to go 


Grupo Vocal Desandann performs at 8 p.m. Friday at Coral Gables 
Congregational Church, 3010 Desoto Blvd., Coral Gables; at 9 p.m. Saturday 
at the Colony Theater, 1040 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach; and at 8 p.m. Sunday 
at the Broad Center for the Performing Arts at Barry University, 11300 NE 
Second Ave., Miami Shores. Tickets are $20 to $30 by calling Miami Light at 

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