If you live anywhere in the continental United States, Grupo Vocal Desandann won’t be entertaining you this year. The 10-member Haitian-Cuban vocal ensemble was scheduled to play at Duke Thursday as part of a seven-city tour that would share their unique cultural heritage and intricate a cappella harmony.
The group originated in Camaguey, Cuba, “specifically to preserve and popularize Haitian culture,” according to Ann Rosenthal, tour producer and executive director of the New York City-based Multi Arts Projects and Productions. “Originally, the group were all members of this association of Haitian residents and Cubans of Haitian descent. It started as a kind of community and culturally specific group.”
Haitians were brought to Cuba in the 19th century as slaves to work the sugar plantations. It’s a minority population, but a well-rooted one. The current Haitian population in Cuba is estimated to be at least one million. Members of GVD were born in Cuba, or are second and third generation Cubans, striving to preserve and celebrate the Haitian culture within Cuba.
But in the seven years they’ve toured outside Cuba, the group has gotten a broader focus. “They’ve done a lot of exchanges here with vocal and choral groups, and they have a lot of similarity to gospel choirs here, so we’ve done a lot of exchanges and they’ve learned and made fresh interpretations of American songs, traditional Negro spirituals,” Rosenthal explains. “Their primary focus is Haitian, (but) they’re really interested in that exchange of cultures.”
But there won’t be any exchanging of cultures this year. It wasn’t their decision to not go through with the tour, and they’re not alone in their plight. If you’ve been wondering why some of your favorite artists from over the water have been absent from your local stages lately, you need look no farther than your very own State Department. Since the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act back in October 2001, all visa applicants from the seven countries that have now been called state sponsors of terrorism by our government–Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria–have to go through a security check with the FBI.
Rosenthal says that her organization had been organizing the current tour for two years, and had all the documentation in place and approved by the INS, and the Cuban government. But the problems started when the USA PATRIOT Act started being enforced this past summer and all the paperwork had to be sent back to the U.S. State Department for approval. Grupo Vocal Desandann’s papers have been sitting there since Aug. 23.
“There’s no one we can talk to,” Rosenthal says. “There’s no one that our senators or congressmen can speak with to find out where it is in the process of the security check. It doesn’t seem to matter that this group has been here three times in the past, and it’s exactly the same members in the group. They’re just sitting on the application and won’t give us any indication of what the status is.” Bill Martinez, a lawyer specializing in Cuban cases, told Rosenthal in an e-mail that “no one can expedite the security clearances. The congressional heavyweights are told the same thing as us commoners: ‘You are absolutely without jurisdiction to expedite security clearances. This is exclusively a matter of the executive branch.’”
Rosenthal says that nobody has been able to find out what to do. “These are policies that are being enforced with no guidelines, no clear procedures about how any of us Americans can comply. They won’t even tell us exactly who’s doing this. I think it’s the FBI, but I don’t know–it could be the CIA.”
No Cubans have been approved since the summer. “There were 20 artists that were supposed to go to the Latin Grammy awards in September,” Rosenthal advised. “It didn’t happen–none of them got in. And they’re not being refused; they’re just not getting through the process. I have been told that the number of applications waiting for security clearances is anywhere between 40,000 and 100,000.”
This is not the first hurdle presenters have had to overcome in dealing with the group. When a group of local presenters first tried to bring them to Miami in ’97, there was an ordinance in Miami-Dade county that prohibited groups who were receiving county money from presenting Cuban groups. Arts organizations in Miami brought and won a lawsuit against the county saying that ordinance was unconstitutional. It was overturned in ’99. Desandann was the first Cuban group they had presented, in June 2000. “We have brought the group into the U.S. in ’97, ’99, and in 2000 for tours to various cites, and all of those have been without incident and they have been very successful and welcomed in those communities,” Rosenthal says proudly.
But this problem seems insurmountable. What was originally a 30-day waiting period from the time the individual was interviewed by the consulate in the foreign country and when they could actually pick up their physical visa is now an indeterminate amount of time. “And so they told people to not buy their plane tickets until they had their visa in their hands,” Rosenthal says. “But you can’t plan anything when you have no idea when the person might come. Nothing can happen that way. And this is not only affecting artists, this is affecting scholars, students are waiting for visas, (as are) business people.”
The arts community has rallied behind the problem, with bookers lobbying the INS and State Department for help. But the best help may be the music itself. 1999’s Descendants is a mix of Afro-Cuban styles, Haitian meringues and spirituals, and a version of “Yellow Bird” that’ll make you forget Harry Belafonte ever opened his mouth. If listening to the group’s magnificent harmonies and exotic rhythms doesn’t move you, then perhaps there’s a place for you–in the visa office of the State Department.
Grupo Vocal Desandann’s show at Nelson Music Hall at Duke on Oct. 17 has been canceled, but Rosenthal says her organization will try to reschedule the group in April of 2003. Grupo Vocal Desandann’s music can be obtained by visiting the Bembe Records site, www.bembe.com.