There is something refreshing and promising in Cuban singer Daymé Arocena. When so much about Cuba’s rich cultural and political history has been the subject of films, books, music albums, and exhibits over the years, Arocena’s authenticity as a singer and performer reminds us of the right of artists to shine on their own. She does this while connecting us to Cuba’s rich African roots, proving her innate musical acuity, and demonstrating her ability to cross over other styles of modern music.
“La Rumba Me Llamo Yo,” a song from her second solo album, Cubafonía (2017), is a straight infusion of rumba and salsa with enough rhythm and melodic phrases to put anybody to dance regardless of their skills. But its her lyrics that intrigue and captivate the listener even more. A line in the first verse of the aforementioned song, “Soy hija de la suerte” (“I’m the daughter of luck”), suggests her existential outlook on life and the future. At only 26 years of age, Arocena has revealed to us a self-prescribed fate.
I recently had the opportunity to catch Arocena on the phone for a few minutes while she was on tour in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. We spoke about her beginnings, her influences, and her vision for the future. Arocena’s formal musical education started when she was ten. She attended two of Cuba’s most prestigious music conservatories, Conservatorio de Música Alejandro García Caturla, until she was 15, and Conservatorio Amadeo Roldán, until she was 19, both with a classical emphasis. All of this education was government sponsored, that is, free to Arocena and to other Cuban nationals, as it continues to be today.
As inspirations, Arocena cites musicians who have challenged the status quo. Outside of Cuba, American singer and activist Nina Simone remains her biggest influence. From inside Cuba, Arocena is inspired by the work of bolero singer La Lupe, singer and pianist Bola de Nieve, and Marta Valdés, composer of the genre “feeling” (a term coined by Cubans), a style similar to the bolero but more interesting, with more rubato or rubateado, as it is referred to in Cuban Spanish (Christina Aguilera’s cover of Cuban singer-songwriter César Portillo de la Luz’s “Contigo en la Distancia” is a good example).
Arocena was part of the Canadian-Cuban music collective Jane Bunnett & Maqueque, with whom she has toured starting at age 21. Jane Bunnett & Maqueque won the Juno Award in 2015 and is nominated for this year’s Grammy Awards for best Latin Jazz Album. Arocena no longer tours with them, but takes great pride in all the work this music collective has done defending the role of women in jazz.
Arocena is a very talented and humble young woman whose aspirations are deeply ingrained in her deep appreciation and love of music and in her essence as a Caribbean woman. She is a gem that has been discovered, not a fabrication of the industry. Everywhere she goes with her band, she leaves audiences in awe and wanting more, recalling the voices and essence of American jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald and Cuban-American Celia Cruz, a comparison drawn by many.
And she wins praises everywhere she goes. During her show at the Hopkins Center for the Arts of Darmouth College in New Hampshire this past April, “the crowd rose to a standing ovation” (The Darmouth). Positive reviews and impassioned responses on her shows abound online and elsewhere.
Arocena’s music and style reflect a long history of languages and cultures. Cuba is the cradle of the well-known Afro-Cuban style, a vocabulary of sounds and rhythms unique to the history and culture of this Caribbean country. The arrival and assimilation of this style to the United States came in different stages. The roots of Latin music in the United States can be traced back to the slave trade that brought Africans to the country—and also to the work of American composer and pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who toured the Caribbean in the late 1850 and created the first piano pieces of American music influenced by the Latin sound. Since then, a craze for Latin music gradually took over the country. For the next decades, the general public and musicians alike would only think of the rumba, mambo, Latin jazz, and cha-cha-cha.
While Arocena is a defender of contemporary Cuban music, she asks her followers not to expect her to sound like Buena Vista Social Club (whom she respects and admires regardless). Arocena represents “la contemporaneidad”—in other words, Cuban music today. She is very attuned to the work of new artists from all over the world; she holds American rapper Kendrick Lamar and Puerto Rican rapper Residente (founder of Calle 13) in the highest esteem.
Daymé Arocena’s May 3 performance in Minneapolis as part of her fifth solo tour in the US will not only be an exciting opportunity for Twin Cities audiences to hear a great voice while dancing recklessly, but also to witness the rich and long journey and evolution of Cuban music through the voice of one of its most authentic contemporary artists.