Dayme Arocena - A Rare Bird
For many, Cuba is an unknown quantity. We know what it is and where it is; it conjures up the acrid scent of Cohibas in the nose and the bitter sting of rum in the throat, shitty Che Guevara t-shirts and grainy images of Castro on the news, but aside from the tropes and clichés we know little of the small island between the Americas. A good place to start, to get a better understanding of the modern Cuba, the real Cuba, is through 24-year-old jazz singer Daymé Arocena. Since the release of her first album, Nueva Era, in 2015, she has captivated both critics and punters with her infectious blend of jazz, liberally drizzled with elements lifted from rumba, guagancó and changüi. She is back once again with Cubafonia, released on Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood imprint (more about him later), an album as full with joy and exotic intrigue as any other, and quintessentially Cuban in nature: surprising, diverse and utterly unpretentious – something relatively rare for a modern jazz record.
Before telling the story of the album however, it is imperative to tell the story of Daymé herself, as the two are inextricably intertwined. Born into humble beginnings, she grew up in a two-bedroom house shared with a mere twenty-one others before joining one of Havana’s prestigious classical music schools at the age of nine. From there she sang in various bands including Sumsum Corda and Joaquin Betancourt’s jazz ensemble, Los Primos Big Band, before being picked up by Havana Cultura, a global platform set up by Havana Club Rum to introduce the world to the sounds and sights being made on the island. Enter stage right: the legendary DJ, tastemaker and world-wide crate digger Gilles Peterson. Gathering together musicians from all genres – jazz, hip-hop, timba, reggaeton – in the historic Egrem studios, he made an album, Havana Cultura: The New Cuba Sound, featuring many of the island’s most promising artists, including a young Daymé. The following year, DJs Carl Cox, Louie Vega, Solal and MJ Cole curated remixes for the dance music crowd. Following the success of the project, Arocena was signed to Peterson’s infamous label, Brownswood Records, and she began her journey to global recognition. Despite her newfound achievements, with NPR proclaiming that there is no better voice to open Cuba’s gates than hers, she remains unbelievably grounded. Always with a feather under her headscarf for good luck, always dressed in white as visible reminder of her induction into the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria, a syncretic religion combining the Yoruba of African slaves and Catholicism, she places as much importance on spiritual chants and repertoires as jazz and Cuban neo-soul, and this is where the beauty of her music lies. It is a mish-mash, a sonic mongrel that dips into and is inspired by such a wide range of sources, from the hectic clamour of the Havana barrio in Mambo Na’ Mà, to the near gospel range of Ángel, and relentless and syncopated modern jazz of Ellegua.
The eclecticism of the music she produces is indicative of the the culture that Daymé was born into; it is jumbled, striking and colourful, much like Cuba itself. As she herself says, it is near impossible to define Cuban music: “It’s the soul of Cuban culture, and Cuban culture is really mixed. We stand in the middle of the old world and the new world…we’ve got so much going on, but even for me it’s hard because there’s so many different rhythms to explore. It’s hard to have all of this on one small island and for people to not realise how much we’ve got”. As an album, Cubaphonia truly succeeds in showing both her own people and the rest of the world the depth and variety of Cuban music, yet I would argue against labelling it simply as ‘world music’ – this is music to touch your soul, a pure auditory expression of joy in its simplest form. When Daymé smiles, as she so often does, you will too. She is a rare bird of paradise indeed, a gateway into a mysterious land, locked away for far too long - keep your eye’s peeled folks, this is one to watch.
Words by: Mac