JANE BUNNETT AND GRUPO VOCAL DESANDANN at the Glenn Gould Studio (250 Front), Tuesday (January 14), $30. 416-205-5555. And at St. George the Martyr Church (179 John), January 21 and 23, $tba. 416-204-1080.
Jane Bunnett has had her share of hair-rising, spine-tingling moments in Cuba -- any dealings with the island's Kafkaesque bureaucracy would do -- but none quite match her introduction to Grupo Vocal Desandann.You can see her wide-eyed reaction when Bunnett performs with the ensemble midway through her documentary film Spirits Of Havana. Never shy about being the gringa jamming with old Cuban masters, the Toronto bandleader seems almost overawed by the ensemble, in large part because Desandann sounds like nothing else on the island.
The 10-member vocal choir from Camagüey makes stately choral music that has little connection to the son, guaguanco, salsa and timba that have come to signify Cuban music. Descendants of Haitian slaves, the choir sings a kind of unearthly a cappella music that has echoes of African-American gospel, Haitian roots music and the large-scale vocal acrobatics of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, all driven by Cuban percussion.
Desandann's performance in a deserted Cuban convent is a highlight of Spirits Of Havana and of Bunnett's new Cuban Odyssey CD, so you have to take the saxophonist at her word when she says the ensemble's Toronto debut Tuesday at the Glenn Gould Studio is going to be "something else."
"We were planning our trip across the country (Cuba) for the film, and the fact that there was this massive population of Haitians in Camagüey really intrigued me," Bunnett explains. "I didn't actually realize that Haiti is, like, 50 miles away from Cuba, and most of the Haitians in Cuba are concentrated in Camagüey.
"We went to check the group out at a convent. They got together to sing for us and we were, like, "Holy shit!' It was one of those rare times when you get that tweak up your spine that tells you you're seeing something special.
"These guys are second- and third- generation Haitians, but their links go deep. They've gone back to the nostalgic period of music in Haiti, in the 1940s and 50s. Haiti was even more of a tourist destination than Cuba in terms of casinos and culture, and that's what they're tapping into."
Despite the choir's unique sound, Desandann has remained unknown beyond Cuba's and Haiti's borders and has somehow escaped the massive interest in Cuban music over the past few years. The reason, apparently, is purely geographical.
"Desandann are in Camagüey, and that's a big deal," offers Bunnett. "Most of the impresarios who go to Cuba scouting music go straight to Havana. More and more are now heading to Santiago de Cuba, which is great, but they don't stop in between.
"People going to Camagüey check into the resort and stay there, so in some ways this group has been a bit of a secret."
The only problem if you're Bunnett is trying to find a way to jam with this band without being flattened by their voices. In the film, she offers only subtle flute accompaniment to Desandann's voices. The additional tracks on Cuban Odyssey are more experimental, as will be the group's Toronto performances.
"Being a jazz improviser, I can usually jump in and play off the rhythm," Bunnett laughs. "That's how I got into Cuban music in the first place. This is a totally different thing.
"I just try to tap into the essence of the piece. There are four- and five-part harmonies in these songs, so it's much more of a textural thing. Desandann are travelling with a percussionist, though, and we're going to try to integrate our band with theirs, so the shows will be a change. They've done this before in Camagüey, but it will be different doing it with gringos."firstname.lastname@example.org