RUSKIN — Awe grew within Wimauma Academy student Janely Rodriguez as she watched the Creole Choir of Cuba perform at the Firehouse Cultural Center on Monday.
Having never been exposed to Haitian culture through song, the choir left an impression.
"This is a new experience for me," Rodriguez said. "They have beautiful voices. They have such soul. You could tell that they felt the music. They are very passionate."
In essence, Rodriguez's reaction represents the goal of the new cultural center in bringing such acts to Ruskin. The choir, which came because of a new partnership with the Patel Conservatory and the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, was the first group of professional performers to host a workshop at the converted fire station.
The 10-member choir that hails from Camaguey, Cuba's third largest city, performed songs and dances representative of their Haitian and African ancestry just a day after performing at the Straz Center to a packed theater.
"Sponsorships and workshops of this nature are the kinds of things that help a place like this get off the ground," said Dolores Coe, chairperson of the Firehouse Cultural Center's Programming Committee and a board member. "Our mission is to offer opportunities like this which don't exist in this area."
Grass roots outreach is something the Straz Center has been involved in for the past 20 years in and around the Tampa Bay area. The Patel Conservatory has been partnering with the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, teaching dance one day a week at the Wimauma Academy, a Hillsborough County charter school for girls.
The school brought 17 middle school students to the Creole Choir performance, and the students were delighted that the choir sang and spoke entirely in Spanish since the students are of Mexican descent.
"It's important for us to bring the arts to these areas so these communities can enjoy the music and the dance," said Tina Jones, education program manager for the Straz Center, who joined the Creole Choir of Cuba at the Firehouse for an hour-long performance. "It shouldn't be something that hinders them based on distance."
The presentation also included a question and answer period led by the choir's director, Emilia Diaz Chavez, and interpreted by their tour manager, Kelso Riddle, a personable Scotsman who is traveling with the group for a month in Florida and then on to Chicago.
"We're building bridges to the center because it's important that everyone in a community, schools and citizens alike, all have access and know the performing arts is theirs," added Donna McBride, fundraiser for the community partners of the Straz Center.
The Creole Choir of Cuba is a classically trained ensemble of men and women who celebrate their Haitian heritage dating back to enslavement from West Africa to the Caribbean.
The members grew up in Cuba and studied music in Camaguey, an old colonial town, and started a choir in 1994 during a period when the Cuban economy fell into a black hole following the fall of the Soviet Union and an end of its financial support.
The choir gladly accepted the invitation to attend the outreach program, seeing it as an extension of their music — feeding their spirit and inspiring them.
"We love this kind of thing," said Chavez, the choir leader. "It makes us happy to see young and old moving, dancing, and laughing to the songs that we like."
Added Riddle: "Cuba is a mosaic of nationalities, like the United States. We don't just like to perform and leave. We like to meet people and shake hands. This makes people get together. This makes peace."
Kathryn Moschella can be reached at [email protected]