Hidden down a quiet side street not far from Tower Bridge, lies Wilton Music Hall, the oldest surviving Music Hall in the world. Built during the 1850s, it still retains the spirit of its history, with its peeling walls and red shutters, creating a façade of decaying grandeur while patrons lounge about outside in the narrow side street. Inside, bare bricks, dim lighting and a wooden floor contribute to the rustic atmosphere, as the smell of lilacs fills your nose. The auditorium would not look out of place in a spaghetti western - its peach coloured walls faded and peeling, the stage a tall proscenium arch with sunrise lighting looming up the back wall, a lower stage jutting out into the stalls while above a U shaped balcony held up by sturdy, wooden, corkscrew, pillars, overlooks the proceedings.
The unique setting of Wilton's Music Hall, is perfect for The Creole Choir of Cuba as it really evokes the 1950's worn, elegance that makes up Cuba. The music of The Creole Choir of Cuba is a joyful experience, filled with passion; it is a celebration of life and a lesson in history. The ancestors of the choir originally came from Haiti and assumed they would one day return, but they never did. Their failure to do so has fortuitously provided us with a choir who have assimilated various Cuban, Haitian and African influences to create a powerful music that makes you feel as though you are hearing the roots of their culture. Their songs are about their history and they sing of the slavery and suffering that their people have endured. Their voices carry the plight of their ancestors, through vocal harmonies, and harken back to an era before music was commercially packaged and turned into a product - when it came out of the community, where it was an organic celebration of life. The Creole choir of Cuba puts us in contact with a kind of music that it is only usually possible to hear in evangelical church services. Their music is so stirring and potent that they inspire a joyousness that the orthodox conservatism of Christian or Catholic choirs lack. The Creole Choir of Cuba is full of a zest for life; they urge the audience to express themselves, to dance and clap along rather than remain as silent, respectful onlookers.
At the back of the stage are two drums, decorated in bright tropical colours. The drum accompanies the choir on a few occasions, while below, on the lower stage a few men stand behind the women, providing the subtle bass line with just their voices. In front of them the women, all in yellow African style robes with gold necklaces and yellow bandannas, sway on the stage providing a melodic harmony to the singer in front of them, who changes with each song. Initially, it is a man wearing a yellow shirt and dark trousers, who holds a microphone at waist height, which, allows you to see the passion on his face more clearly as his husky voice fills the auditorium with an emotional sound that resounds through the hall. But each woman also has a turn as lead singer and shows the variety of talent, as each voice has its own quality, ranging from high, almost operatic singing to strong soulful intensity. The Creole language they sing in has a uniquely earthy sound, filled with snatches of French, Portuguese and Spanish as it is a Pidgin language and is the perfect vehicle for the different vocal ranges to layer each other as the music builds to its powerful crescendo and their voices fuse together.
The Creole Choir of Cuba is truly an ensemble performance in every sense of the word - the harmonies generated by the women and the subtle bass of the men, provides a sea of sound to support the strong voices of the various lead singers. You can see on their faces the deep feeling that the music creates within them and the sense of involvement they have with their songs. This is a spiritually uplifting experience that feels incredibly free and passionate.
You can tell how powerful an impact their music has on people, as a man at one point filled with musical frenzy comes to the front of the stage and dances below them, free of all social inhibitions. It is like the music releases people's repression and allows them to forget their conservatism, it appeals to a natural desire for a community where passion is not something to be denied or suppressed but celebrated through sound and performance. These women swaying from side to side, reaching out with their hands while they sing so soulfully is a mesmerizing experience that receives no less than three standing ovations. Coming down from off the stage, a singer dances with a man in the front row and the crowd are there with him dancing and twirling, it is like they have managed to transport us into a music hall in Havana, just through the power of their music. As I leave the venue I almost expect a beaten up Cadillac to roll up and offer me a ride home.