Ethnic & Multicultural Perspectives R&R

A Foray Into Cuban Choral Music In Havana by Sherrill Blodget, July 2016

Trip to Havana, Cuba, and performance with Coro Vocal Leo

In May 2015 I had the wonderful opportunity to bring members of the Castleton University Chorale to Havana, Cuba, to collaborate with Cuban professional choir Coro Vocal Leo and their wonderful director Corina Campos.  Each choir learned repertoire from each other’s country.  I sent Wade in the Water (Moses Hogan) and Ubi Caritas (Ola Gjeilo), and (after a very long wait) received three Cuban pieces to learn:  Las Cuatro Palomas by Ignacio Piñeiro, arr. Electo Silva; Chanchullo by Ruben Gonzoles, arr. M. Pacheco and G. Hamilton, and the Gloria from Misa by Beatriz Corona.  I will briefly describe each of these below.

After traveling to Cuba, we rehearsed with Cornina and the members of Coro Vocal Leo in the Casa Victor Hugo in Old Havana. The rehearsal itself was a wonderful experience. Only a few of my students speak Spanish, and very few of the Cuban choir members spoke English.  Yet the groups melded right away and demonstrated the power of music to transcend language as we quickly put together the program, including learning choreography for Chanchullo.

The next day we met at the Museo de la Revolución  (Museum of the Revolution) for a dress rehearsal and performance. The museum is housed in the former Presidential Palace, home to Cuban leaders from the 1920’s – 1959, including Frank Batista.  Following the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro turned the palace into the museum to display the history of the revolution. We performed in the presidential ballroom – an exquisite room with a beautiful mural on the ceiling, chandeliers, and very live acoustics.  (wikepedia palace ballroom). It was also extremely hot, as there was no air conditioning and not much cross breeze.  Sweating was just one of many things we experienced during our performances and stay in Cuba. Another was the positive attitude of the Cubans when conditions were not perfect, or equipment malfunctioned or was missing.  During our stay we used one of the few good electric keyboards in Havana – it is shared among prominent music ensembles, and had to be rushed off immediately following our performances.  In the palace ballroom the electrical outlets did not match those of the keyboard and we did not have an adaptor. No one got worried about this, but rather set to work adapting the cord to fit the outlet with some extra wires. Many such stories throughout our time and performances in Havana!

Our performance featured each ensemble individually, and then the combined pieces conducted by Corina and myself. We were well received and thoroughly enjoyed performing and watching Coro Vocal Leo. My students and I were very inspired by the tremendous energy the Cubans brought to their singing. They felt the music with their entire bodies, and many of the pieces involved some kind of movement, if not specific choreography. Their tone and musicality was exquisite and the experience of collaborating with them was life changing.  Many of the singers, as well as Corina, came to watch our ‘solo’ performance at the Habana Libre Hotel later in our stay, which we really appreciated.

Later in the week, we had the pleasure of attending the Minnesota Orchestra performance of Beethoven including the Choral Fantasy at the Teatro National de Havana.  This was the first performance in Cuba of a United States orchestra in over 60 years, and Coro Vocal Leo was one of the choirs singing the Beethoven. Very exciting!  And it was wonderful to make a connection with this fabulous ensemble.

As the US and Cuban relations continue to open up and improve, I suspect much more of the fabulous Cuban choral music will be published and become more readily available. I encourage us all to check it out as this happens, as there is a wealth of music waiting to be ‘discovered’!

The Ensemble: Coro Vocal Leo

Founded in 1993, Coro Vocal Leo is a professional chamber choir directed by Corina Campos. They are well known in Cuba and have won a number of international awards. The ensemble is known for bringing their singing to life by adding theatrical choreography to many of their pieces.  Some links to hear them (of varying recording quality):

The Repertoire: 

We learned three Cuban pieces to sing with Coro Vocal Leo. Each of them is accessible to a solid SATB High School choir, college or community choir.  Getting the music is a bit tricky as none are published, but if anyone is interested, please let me know.

  1. Chanchullo by Ruben Gonzoles, arr. M. Pacheco and G. Hamilton.

chancullo, bailemos, gocemos   (Let us enjoy ourselves, let us dance, let us enjoy the party)

This is very fun piece SATB, a cappella piece, with very few words that are often broken into repeated syllables. It is about 2.30 long. The Cubans described this song as depicting a raucous party.  The music definitely portrays this – it is polyrhythmic, with each voice part depicting an instrument. While the individual notes and parts are not difficult, there are many syncopated rhythms, and it is a bit tricky to lock together.  The clave, which is the rhythmic foundation to most Cuban music, is woven into the texture and heard outright in the altos in the final section. Of course Coro Vocal Leo adds movement and dancing when they perform this piece – for an added challenge!

(See above for a link to hear Chancullo)

2. Las Cuatro Palomas by Ignacio Piñeiro, arr. Electo Silva.


Habanera no te canses de quere a tu sonero, Que si me olvidas me muero
Sin tus caricias no puedo vivir,

Nunca olvides niña Hermosa, Que al splendor de la luna,
Bajo pergola suntuosa, Eternamente me juras te amor.

Yo tengo cuatro palomas, En una fuente redoda
A todas le pongo agua, Todas beben su poquito
Ninguna se pone brava, Que Buena son mis palomas.


Habanera, do not tire of loving your sonero,
Because if you forget me, I would die without your caresses.

Never forget, beautiful girl, that by moonlight,
under a sumptuous arbor, you swore to love me.

I have four doves in a round font (fountain), I our water for all of them,
All of them drink a little, none of them gets angry. How good are my doves.

Las Cuatro Palomas is a cappella, has three distinct sections (A B C A), and is about 2 minutes long.  In contrast to Chancullo it is primarily homophonic. Set in c minor there are some interesting harmonies, and more text to contend with, and of course syncopated moments. Section C utilizes a traditional Spanish texture of solo duet over chords with an ostinato bass line. The duet can be sung by tenors or sopranos, though tenors fit the text better, as it is the sonero singing to his habanera (girl from Havana). The music perfectly depicts the playful and flirtatious text sung by the dramatic sonero.  (There are a variety of interpretations on youtube. This one is a bit faster than we took it with Coro Vocal Leo, but very expressive:

3. Gloria from Misa by Beatriz Corona. Beatriz Corona is one of the most well-known contemporary composers in Cuba. Unfortunately due to the separation between Cuba and the United States, not much of her music has reached the US.  I have only been able to find one commercial CD of her music (mentioned above). She has composed over 200 pieces for  choir and choir with chamber or full orchestra including eight masses, as well as some orchestra pieces. Many of her choral works are a cappella, and often set the text of Cuban poets.

The Gloria is set for choir and strings, and includes a beautiful tenor solo.  In E Major and mostly homophonic, it is tricky due to syncopation and some unique harmonies. All voice parts split throughout, and at the end.  (2 min, 45 sec)

Some of Beatriz Corona’s a cappella choral works are published and also recorded on the CD Aire Nocturno. These are well worth checking out!

4. Misa Cubana a la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre by Jose Vitier: in Novemeber 2014 the Vermont Collegiate Choral Consortium, with Castleton, Middlebury, St. Michael’s, and Johnson State College choirs, orchestra, and soloists, performed Jose Vitier’s Misa Cubana (getting in the mood for traveling to Cuba!). Though we did not perform this in Cuba, it is accessible and beautiful, and deserves mentioning. The full work runs about an hour, and includes twelve movements with the Latin ordinary of the mass (less the Credo) in addition to Marion hymns, and Spanish texts written by Vitier’s wife – poet Silvia Rodríguez.  Vitier, one of Cuba’s most famous contemporary pianists and composers, wrote the mass to honor “Our Lady of Charity” – the patron saint of Cuba. The music varies from a Baroque style Ave Maria, to classical, to romantic scoring reminiscent of film music. The textures of voices and orchestra change throughout, though often including Cuban percussion.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you are interested in learning more about these pieces or would like a copy of Chancullo or Las Cuatro Palomas.