To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Here, Terrell LaMarr, host of Radio Pocho on KFAI, shares his perspective on Daymé Arocena’s recent performance at The Cedar.
Her band assumed the stage first. Three young men from Havana, clad in black, found their places behind the piano, bass, and drums, respectively. Daymé Arocena ascended the stairs dressed in the all-white of a santera, a single dread peeking out from beneath her matching white head wrap. She removed her shoes and left them at the edge of the stage—she needed to be comfortable and, wielding a voice like hers, even the most nimble could be knocked off balance by the force. Given her attire, the removal of her shoes almost felt religious: this was a ceremony, after all.
Santería, Lucumí, Palo, and Candomblé are syncretic forms of Yoruba religions that were violently ripped from Africa, along with their practitioners, and traveled to the Americas via the transatlantic slave trade. They share a pantheon of deities, often referred to as orishas, with names like Oshun, Yemaya, Shango, and Ogun, which have begun to seep their way into mainstream American consciousness, largely thanks to artists such as Ibeyi (themselves named after an orisha), Nitty Scott, Azaelia Banks, and Beyoncé. Yes, Beyoncé. Her 2016 visual album, Lemonade, contained numerous references to Yoruba deities, which were quickly picked up on by fans and spread across the internet in a flash. Arocena opened her set with a song and chant called “Eleggua,” named for the orisha who must approve any ritual before it can continue. This was a ceremony, after all.
Arocena, visiting the Twin Cities in support of her latest album, Cubafonia, may not have opened her eyes until after her second song, “Madres,” a dedication to her own personal orishas—Yemaya and Oshun—and when she finally did, she seemed momentarily shocked by the crowd’s already overjoyed response. She already had them in her palm, and she only had plans of tightening her grip for the next hour. The mood shifted purple as Arocena recalled being in London when she learned of Prince’s death and how she had, true to her roots in Santería, offered him a chant to assist him on his journey. For the remainder of the performance, the backdrop was bathed in purple light as if our ceremony had been blessed by Minneapolis’s patron saint.
As “Lo Que Fue” began with pianist Jorge Luis Lagarza mouthing the notes as he played them during his solo work, he was greeted by cheers of the audience, who seemed to recognize his talent instantly. Arocena educated the crowd on the Chachachá rhythm of the song as she would throughout her set containing a number of different Cuban rhythms and tempos (changui, Guajira, rumba). The song itself is a resolute kiss-off to a former lover who left the protagonist before, now, trying in vain to win her back. You can imagine Arocena and the former flame sitting in a smoky bar, ice melting in her glass of rum, as she throws her head back declaring, “Que risa me das (you make me laugh)!”
It would be reductive to say that Daymé Arocena is a natural performer. The raw talent has always been there, evidenced by the facts that she began attending one of Cuba’s most prestigious music academies at just nine years old, and that by 14 she had become the lead singer of a big band called Los Primos. Yet and still nature simply does not make them this good. It is difficult to imagine how much work went into Arocena becoming the performer we witnessed on this night. Perhaps her greatest strength is the way that emotion pours from her. All of her emotes. Her face, her eyes, her smile, her arms as she dances…and then, of course, there is the voice. By the time she reaches the final few lines of “Como” and exclaims “este amor me va matar (this love is going to kill me),” it feels as if it just might.
By the time she arrived at “Negra Cardidad,” a song dedicated to the Patroness of Cuba, La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, syncretized with the orisha Oshun, the crowd was fully enthralled in Arocena’s performance. As she urged them along, she reminded the audience that they were “singing for the Saint of Beauty,” while holding the ends of her knee-length dress in her hands to dance as freely as possible. Her joy was infectious and the energy of the room continued to rise.
The penultimate song of the evening began by teasing the crowd as Arocena began singing the lyrics to “Purple Rain” before the arrangement twisted into “La Rumba Me Llamo Yo.” While the band was in full swing, one by one, several fans, lost to the rhythm, took to the stage. The onlookers, rapturous in their approval, mirrored what was happening in front of them—dancing and twirling to the soaring rumba pulse. Appropriately, as an encore, Arocena and bandmates Rafael Aldama (bass), Jorge Luis Lagarza (piano), and Ruly Herrera (drums) took the stage once more with the songstress belting out, “I know you like it, but it’s not going to be forever.” No ceremony can last forever, and while Arocena assured us that she would love to come back, we should all petition Eleggua to make sure that happens.