Creole Choir of Cuba, Tai Chi, Hugh Masekela and Ronatherapy and more

Yesterday the Creole Choir of Cuba, known back home on the island as Desandenn (meaning Descendents) due to the fact that they are descendents of Haitians who fled  to Cuba from Haiti at various points in the 19th and 20th centuries, came to see me, and sang to me in the front garden before  they left. We drank, tea and coffee and they enjoyed wee nips of port, whisky that i had to hand.  I am fond of saying that if i am a ‘goner’ i have no regrets (save writing a few books i have always intended to do and have had contracts for…) and that I have had and am still having  a wonderful life: part of that has been interviewing and working with numerous musicians, from the very famous to the not-so-famous or up-and-coming to  just  every day wonderful creative  musicians.  I love musicians,  listening to their music, and talking to them about it as much as I love singing myself.  I look back and I know i have had a ball and one of extreme privilege in hvaing that time with them and also because some of them have become ‘friends’

I first heard Desandenn at a small music festival in  Santiago de Cuba in 2003?  when my musicologist friend there told me ‘don’t miss them’. They were astonishing in Cuban terms as they were Cuban-Haitians singing  stunning songs in pidgin-creole-Haitian wearing  robes made of African-like material way before such material was available easily in Cuba and as such were regarded as ‘exotic’… Later a UK promoter friend Jon Lee who has worked a lot with Cuban artists  mentioned them to me and I responded enthusiastically ely. He then started to manage and promote them outside Cuba bringing  them to star for there weeks at Toby Gough’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival venue The World in 2008/9?

With the help of another music activist and film maker John Simpson they were brought to the attention of Peter Gabriel and  Real World Records who offered to record their debut UK disc which they did after Edinburgh Festival gigs in 2009. I got to piece together their story and write the sleeve notes for the disc which Real World then used to promote them worldwide (aside: the irritation was that Real World ‘forgot’ to put my name on the notes, saying as excuse that my name  ‘fell off at designer stage add we failed to notice’. It annoys me how presumtively record companies assume ‘ownership’ of copy  they commission  without actually holding due copyright rights. Real World apologised and paid me a bit more cash  – it’s low paid anyway believe me – but the deed was done as it is unlikely they will re-press the disc. Also they never ever asked me if they could use my words for all their worldwide publicity and acted ‘astonished’ when I pointed out to them that as I had written the notes the  the ‘words’ were mine with copyright residing with me and that they should have sought my permission…i tried to rally fellow music journalists who do work for them and other independent companies but none were willing to ‘rock the boat’ as it might damage their ability to get such work in future…  ).

Real World gripes aside,  I loved working with the Creole Choir (CCC) as they are called in the UK and Europe (it gives a clear image with Desandenn being regarded as ‘difficult to pronouce’ and of ‘doubtful meaning’) . I loved translating for the two Jons/John when they were persuding  them that Real World were a ‘good reliable company’ and telling them  who Peter Gabriel was. I loved spending a full day with them rehearsing their repertoire, writing down lyrics, getting as much of the history of each song that we could, and then taking them out to Leith, Edinburgh’s port,  to eat fish and chips in the famous Peacock Inn (which later burnt down).

I wrote a nice piece about them for Songlines magazine  telling how they had gone to Haiti only weeks after the 2010 Haitian earthquake to work with the Cuban medical mission, going out each day to do active ‘singing’ therapy with people gathered in the camps, many of them children. At the time the news here was reporting aid agencies trapped at the airport: with no language or other barriers (Cuba being a neighbouring island and long term friend to Haiti with an active  medical mission) CCC were able to get in and do inspiring things  quickly and without fuss.

En route to concerts in Spain, Switzerland  and France via Edinburgh CCC rang up and all came round by ordinary  bus.  It was fantastic  to see them,  and before they hastened back to the centre of town to see the French Consul to try to resolve a visa issue to let them perform in France, we hugged and kissed and they sang to me in the garden. They were dismayed by my health news, not to say astonished, as ‘you look so well’ and ‘we think of you as so energetic’… I still have pending a trip to Camaguey in Cuba where they come from, a place I visited first back in 1989 as the only ‘foreigner’ invited to be part of Silvio Rodríguez entourage  ‘ en gira por la patria’ (‘on tour for the country’, the tour marking  the 30th anniversary of the 1959 revolution – thank you Silvio, thank you Ciro Benamelis)  but that’s another lovely story i will save for another day.

Yesterday before Desandenn came i went to my Tai Chil class which is literally round the corner 3 mins from my house. I love Tai Chi: i do the Tsaoist type and the class I attend normally  is lead by the fantastic teacher-couple Glen and Jill who must be in their 70s and who radiate  guru like presence: smiling, welcoming, calm, quiet, unfussy. About 50-60 people aged between i would guess 30 and 80 gather in the Cluny Church centre upper hall each Wednesday morning at 10am to do the warm-up exercise and  two full Tai Chi sets before stopping for jasmine tea and then a brush up of one of the moves before doing anothers  set to finish around noon. I adore the feeling of us all doing exercises and  sets in complete silence. It’s a wonderful room with windows on all sides so sunlight floods in all year round.  It is part of an upper hall made by dividing horizontally what was a huge church hall which  at one end it has a fabulous stained glass window (green, red, blue)  picturing a giant  Jesus with open arms with the biblical words, ‘come unto me those who are heavy laden and i will re-fresh you’. Image and words offer  real metaphor for effect of Tai Chi itself.

Last year when South African  trumpeter Hugh Masekela was coming to play at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall I got to intervewi him on the ‘phone while he was on tour in the USA for a preview  piece i wrote for The Scotsman. When I rang him Masekala told me spontaneously  he was just, ‘out of the shower’ and asked could I  ring back in 5 mins! When I did as we laughed about my timing I took advantage of  the personal moment to ask him if it was true he did Tai Chi (as I had  read that somewhere)? And so began a wondeful conversation about who had taught him and his wife  – who got him doing it in the first place – and how he practised daily  and what type he did and I did etc (there are various Tai Chil styles). It was a great way into his music.

What was lovely about all this was that last week Toby Shippey, band leader of the tremendous Salsa Celtica (of whom i am number one fan hey Toby) and another trumpeter to boot (with whom I have also been in Santaago de Cuba with other Salsa Celtica members – yet another story), met Masekela while Salsa Celtica were playing on the same Leeds festival bill. Toby texted me to say he had chatted to Masekela, about me (!?) – we had both loved the Usher Hall gig which in review  I gave 5 ***** Scotsman stars   – and that Masekela had been doing his Tai Chi warm up outside a portkabin before going on stage. Toby texted me a great photo of them both arm in arm holding their trumpets!

Apart form Tai Chi keeping me fit and lovely friends sending me texts,  photos and singing to me, another friend from my church Rona, who teaches yoga and is a massage therapist comes each week to give me alternately an  Indian head massage or reflexology.  This is wonderful for the body as mine is used to lots of exercise (weekly flamenco, aqua aerobics x 2, swimming, walking, dancing) which I cannot do just now and have not been able to do since March.  I am wondering how I  will heal mind and body in October when all this  life infusing chemotherapy is over and how i will re-gain my strength.

Rona is not a typical skinny lycra wearing yoga teacher. She wears a short sleeved shirt with Ronatherapy embroidered  on the left collar side in small letters (I like the Rona/Aroma-therapy pun). She  is  small and comfortably built yet incredibly flexible. She is a quiet by nature, calm and comforting and a real healer.  Alex also comes from my church. He is one of the people I walked pilgrimage with  in 2007 to Santiago de Compostela. He is a young surgeon who has recently also qualified as a Deacon and he comes to  give me communion at home while I  cannot get to Church and we natter about lots of things.

Peter, another friend I first made at church in the Routes to Roots group, who now lives down the coast in Cove near Pease Bay and Dunbar, comes every week and we spend time doing Buddhist inspired meditation  based on the ‘in and out’ of our breath.   I have been on a retreat with Thikh Nat Hahn (in St Andrews) and Peter is a great follower of Hahn and now  leads weekly mediation in Cove. We’d like to go visit Hahn at Plum Village in France  – maybe that will happen next year. Peter comes with his guide dog Norton as Peter became blind in his 20s. Y et  he  has never let him hinder him: he is black belt karate, worked all his life for Standard Life in computing department until he recently retired early,  and has a very full life as well as a great family of two now adult children. His partner Elspbeth  is another good friend we having bonded in a group called ‘Women Doing Theology’!

Sun is shining – going to enjoy today!

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About Jan Fairley

I am an experienced and passionate ethnomusicologist working as an arts and music journalist and broadcaster, writer and editor as well as researcher, lecturer, radio presenter and producer. I have a breadth of organising experience at home and abroad. I am a fluent Spanish speaker. I love travelling and have worked abroad (notably Chile 1971-3 and again in 1994) and researched in Cuba, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Finland.
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