Grupo Vocal Desandann
Bembé (

cd cover Grupo Vocal Desandann is a ten-person ensemble celebrating a legacy of Haitian a cappella music in eastern Cuba. On Descendants, their complex vocal style is accompanied only by occasional light percussion, and their voices, five male, five female, are deployed in dense harmonies and intricate, interweaving call-response and contrapuntal structures. What sets Grupo Vocal Desandann apart, however, is not these tight arrangements, but the perfect tonal matching of the voices; the basses ground without rattling, the sopranos soar without a hint of shrillness, the center holds unobtrusively. The result is mildly puzzling but profoundly enjoyable; is this the heavenly choir or the 101 Strings?

This is not a trick question. "Choucoune" features the same quietly rolling tune I recall from my early youth as "Yellow Bird," a staple of the 1950s calypso craze in American popular music; I can't help picturing black-and-white television sets and rounded pastel Kelvinator fridges each time I hear it, and the lovely, nearly operatic soprano duet with which Desandann carries the melody keeps me returning. Another eminently recognizable tune is "Cachita," bright and lively without a single rough edge. "Guédé Nibo" has a stately dignity, the gorgeous harmonies suggestive of a Christmas carol, even when it erupts into what would be vocal frenzy were it not so smooth. "La Mal de Travay" follows a similar trajectory, this time led by a syrupy tenor voice, backed by claps and a mixed chorus.

Endemic exposure to American commercial music has made me wary of perfection. The vocals of Desandann are indeed perfection, but hardly banal; they throb with spirit, life, and cleverness. Angels one, Mantovani zero. - Jim Foley

Audio: "Wangolo" (traditional) ©1999 Bembe Records

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