DESANDANN and JANE BUNNETT'S SPIRITS OF HAVANA at St. George-the-Martyr Church, January 23. Tickets: $25. Attendance: sold out. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
It's hard to imagine what the 10 Cubans in flowing gowns and sandals made of the sub-zero temperatures outside St. George-the-Martyr Thursday. A 50-degree drop in temperature from their Camagüey home to Toronto might have silenced most, but Haitian-Cuban choir Desandann showed no signs of hypothermia or even a slight chill.Exploring rarely heard a cappella choral music initially brought to Cuba by descendants of Haitian slaves, Desandann did a star turn in Jane Bunnett's Spirits Of Havana film. Stripped of most of the obvious signifiers of Cuban music -- blaring horns, driving percussion, rootsy folk overtones -- the choir's subtle crooning has an unearthly tone. Acoustics aside, it made perfect sense that the group sang in the sanctified air of a downtown church.
Thursday's performance was essentially two shows in one. On the one hand, Desandann performed solo and with Bunnett providing delicate accompaniment on flute and sax, the group gliding effortlessly between spirituals, Afro-Cuban choral pieces and a heart-stopping cover of Unforgettable. As a unit, the choir's voices created a powerful wall of sound, but it was Desandann's soloists who stood out. Fidel Romero Miranda tore up the church floor with Otis Redding-style soul breakdowns, while Marcelo Andrs Luis's rumbling bass rattled the wooden beams above. Even those in the crowd familiar with the group were stunned by Desandann's vocal grace.
Somewhat less successful were Bunnett's attempts to integrate Desandann with her own Spirits Of Havana ensemble. Admittedly, the two had only been jamming together for just over a week before Thursday's show, but much of the fusion between Spirits' descargas and Desandann's more stately vocalizing sounded forced and had the unfortunate effect of reducing the choir to a mere chorus, albeit an incredible one.
The real highlight of the extended jams was pianist David Virelles, Bunnett's stylish and explosive Santiago discovery, who threatened to steal the show every time he sat down. In addition to his job translating between the crowd and the choir, Virelles acted as the link between the two very different groups onstage.
Given a bit more time, he could undoubtedly have drawn the two closer together, but on this night the two were best enjoyed apart.