Rich, bold, warm and tender: this is the voice of Daymé Arocena. Havana born and raised, her latest record Cubafonía, released in March this year, stays true to her Cuban roots. With a mature and complex sound that bears influences of soul, jazz, salsa and Afro-Cuban rhythms, it’s difficult to believe that this woman—with her infectious energy and smile—is aged just 24.
“Jazz infused piano lines, Afro-Cuban rhythm sections, and soulful yet bold vocals define this record.”
Jazz-infused piano lines, Afro-Cuban rhythm sections, and soulful yet bold vocals define this record. Cuban politics have have led to a culture in isolation, but Arocena says that this has allowed a pure and beautiful culture to emerge—one that’s ready to be unleashed to the world. While this island—nestled by the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean—may be small, what it lacks in size, it makes up for in culture and musical history.
Daymé Arocena defines herself as a jazz musician, but Cubafonía’s genre-jumping journey exemplifies her widespread talent and influences. Trained with rigour in classical music from around age nine, she now intersects her classical training with jazz, Afro-Cuban rhythms and fast-paced guaguancó (a sub-genre of Cuban rumba, combining percussion, voices and dance styles from the Caribbean). This fusion of genres mirrors her homelife, sharing with Rhythm Passports: “My parents aren’t musicians themselves but they used to play a lot of good stuff at home, they played everything. For example, my grandma loved rumba, bolero and everything related to traditional Cuban music and my mother likes Cuban folk too, whereas my father is more oriented towards American jazzy stuff.”
Arocena’s voice echoes scatting-inspired vocals, chanting and melodic tones. She is a composer, arranger and choir leader, which saw her as the divisor and head of an all female jazz group prior to her solo pathway. Aware that she was often the only woman performing in various jazz groups around Havana, she decided to even the playing field and create a new genre: all female Cuban jazz. Arocena’s fusion of influences and genres, brings a contemporary edge to these traditional sounds in Cubafonía, an album that cements her place as Cuba’s latest jazz prodigy.
As a dedicated practitioner of Santería, an Afro-Caribbean religion based on Yoruba beliefs, Arocena fell in love with Santería’s music, and then the religion, and the saint Yemayá became a guiding force. In a recent interview with VIBE she says, “like the sea, she whispers in my ears the songs that I write.” Santería is honoured through her often all-white dress and head wraps, song verses sung in Yoruba, and the ceremony-like chanting of opening track Eleggua, named after a Santería orisha (god). And instantly, we’re taken to the streets of contemporary Cuba.
“A few tracks on, Negra Caridad reminds one of a Spaghetti Western soundtrack before reaching Mambo Na’ M à, a soulful and uplifting tune with almost pop-like melodies that riffs on the sounds of New Orleans jazz and its Creole origins.”
La Rumba Me Llamo Yo kicks in with a strong cuban rumba, with horns and swaying piano line. A few tracks on, Negra Caridad reminds one of a Spaghetti Western soundtrack before reaching Mambo Na’ M à, a soulful and uplifting tune with almost pop-like melodies that riffs on the sounds of New Orleans jazz and its Creole origins. In the second half of the record we move to a slower, more contemplative place. The track Cómo, sung in English and Spanish, allows us to appreciate the husky depth to her voice and reflect on her heartfelt serenade. It’s Not Gonna Be Forever switches the tempo up a notch for one last dalliance with her swaying groove. She closes in with Valentine, a warm and somewhat sentimental track where the marimba, güira and voices of her band, take us home before a gentle fade-out of her own laughter.
While the riffs and melodies may fluctuate, what stays with you throughout this record, is Arocena’s vivacity, composure, power and joy. Consider it a homage to Cuba; a celebration of its diversity, spirit and bold rhythms. As this Caribbean island is increasingly introduced to the world, Daymé Arocena introduces us to the new sound of Cuba.