Wilton's Music Hall in east London is a remarkable building. The oldest music hall in the world, it opened in 1859, was ravaged by fire 20 years later, spent decades as a Methodist mission hall, fell into disrepair, and only reopened as a theatre a decade ago. It is still strikingly beautiful but every inch is evocative of faded glory. The walls are flaking and pockmarked with decay; the roof timbers are smoke-charred; it seems on the verge of collapse. To sit inside it is to feel history closing in on you. All in all, it is the ideal venue for the London debut of the Creole Choir of Cuba. It reminds them a little of home.
On the afternoon of the show, the 10 members of the choir mill around the hall, chatting between rehearsals. In Cuba, they are known as Grupo Vocal Desandann, meaning Descendants, in reference to their Haitian roots. Much of their repertoire is drawn from the songs their grandparents used to sing them, and newer ones they've picked up on their regular visits to Haiti. To an outsider's ear it sometimes sounds distinctly African, at others Latin American; occasionally it has shades of gospel or European choral music. They've even been known to cover Nat King Cole's Unforgettable. On the strength of their performances at the Edinburgh festival last year, they got five-star reviews, a recording contract with Peter Gabriel's Real World label, a slot at Womad and a booking on Later … With Jools Holland. It is not hard to see why.
The choir's artistic director is a loquacious, maternal woman named Emilia Diaz Chavez – loquacious, alas, only in Spanish, so when we meet in the bar after rehearsals, we converse via Jon Lee, the record producer who first saw them sing five years ago and has been working ever since to bring them to the UK. When Lee darts off briefly during the interview to attend to something, Chavez and I attempt to continue in schoolboy broken French. I manage to find out the age range of the six-woman, four-man choir – 26 to 60 – before the conversation collapses into benign confusion, with lots of smiling and shrugging. I am on the verge of asking her if she has any pets and if she knows the way to the post office when Lee mercifully returns.
The choir began in 1994 as an offshoot of the 28-strong state choir of Camagüey, a large but sparsely populated low-lying province known, says Chavez, for its cheese. Thanks to the Cuban government's strategic investment in the arts, singing is their full-time job, and they rehearse for six hours a day. They regularly tour the island playing free concerts and festivals for locals as well as state functions for visiting dignitaries. The state choir's songbook includes Monteverdi, Puccini and Bach, but the Creole Choir is Chavez's attempt to honour her own family traditions. "Really we're Cubans, so the music we listen to is Cuban," she says. "But we try to keep it as tight to creole as we can."
The Creole Choir of Cuba's album Tande-la is out on Real World on 4 October. They perform at Theatre Royal Stratford East from 17-20 November as part of the London jazz festival.