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Cuban singer and songwriter Daymé Arocena. Photo by Tony Martinez, courtesy of Fundarte

In the music of Cuban singer and songwriter Daymé Arocena Santeria rhythms brush against rumba and samba grooves. She has a rich, caramel-toned contralto voice, both powerful and expressive and from song to song, her phrasing may hint now at filin’, now at classic soul and R&B, or she may break out into her own style of jazz scatting  — and yet the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
She has an irrepressible, engaging personality and makes it all sound as her birthright.

Her approach can be heard on recordings such as Havana Cultura Mix: The Soundclash! and the EP One Takes. and on two albums under her own name, Nueva Era ( 2015), and Cubafonia (2017). A third one, Sonocardiogram is scheduled for release in a few weeks.

Arocena and her quartet, are part of a promising double bill with Cuban singer and producer Cimafunk (aka Erick Alejandro Iglesias), perform as part of the Global CubaFest 2019, at the North Beach Bandshell, Miami Beach, Saturday, March 30 at 6 p.m.

Born in Havana, Arocena, 27, grew up immersed in religious and secular musical traditions. Her parents were not musicians, but there were uncles and cousins who played professionally. Perhaps more important, she suggests, her memories as a child are of the joy of making music to endure everyday hardships.

“I grew up in a family in which music was the center of family life. It was our joy,” she says in conversation from her home in Havana. “I was born in the 90s, at a time the economic situation in Cuba was very difficult. We got to be 22 people living in a two-room apartment. There was almost no electricity. It would come and go, but we would have electricity so briefly that instead of talking about apagones (blackouts) people would speak of alumbrones (a made up term that can be translated as “Lightsup”). And my family was always a happy family, and when that happened, to pass the time, some of us sang and some accompanied beating on doors and tables and windows and whatever was available. We had all the furniture broken and beat up, “ she says breaking in a laugh.”

“I was the little one and the only girl, and despite those gray times, I grew up with that beautiful energy,” she says. “My grandmother loved boleros so there was always a moment when she would sing a bolero. And my father had a large collection of cassettes. My dad lived for his music. He spent his life looking for ways to get more music. He had a small radio and had a makeshift antenna and would listen and tape shows from the United States. So where there was electricity he would play anything from Lionel Richie to Queen to George Benson. And he was infecting me with that too.”

Her talent was so obvious, even early on, that at 5 she joined a neighborhood choir. At the insistence of a local music teacher, at 10 her parents took her to the Alejandro Garcia Caturla conservatory, where she was placed in the choral conducting course. “Nothing to do with Santeria o rumba,” she says, breaking into a laugh. “ At school, it was Bach, Monteverdi, Mozart …” her voice trailing off.

She graduated to the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory where, as she continued her classical studies, she also learned her jazz. It was a chance encounter that became a passion.
The conservatory has a symphonic orchestra, a concert band, and a big band. Arocena was placed in the choirs, but as it turns out, the big band needed a singer.
“I was 15 and […] they had heard about me so they asked me. I didn’t know anything about jazz big bands. I had no idea. The first two songs they wanted me to sing were “My Funny Valentine” and “Bye, Bye Blackbird.” They gave me the parts, I took them home and learned them like I’d learn Monteverdi or any classical piece. That’s what I knew how to do. I had no reference for this music, I didn’t know about standards, or who sang these songs, or how they did them — but I learned them. And suddenly I found myself singing at jazz festivals so I asked the guys in the band to help me, and they got me my first jazz records of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and Sarah Vaughan. Holiday had an incredible voice and Ella was such a phenomenal improviser, but the one who killed me was Nina Simone. ”

“When I first heard her sing I didn’t know if it was a man or a woman,” she says. “ There was something uncommon there and it moved me. Her voice was warm but dark and there was something mystical in the way she sang. The first songs I heard by her were “I Put a Spell on You” and “I Loves You Porgy” — and I didn’t realize that it was the same singer. As I listened to her more, I learned that every time she sang a song she was a different person. She was a chameleon. That woman is the love of my life.”

The other influential vocalist in Arocena’s life is Cuban singer Lupe Victoria Yoli Yamond, better known as La Lupe

“She was a favorite of my grandmother,” says Arocena. “ And then my father gave me a recording of a compilation of the great Cuban singers of all time. La Lupe got to me when I heard her sing “Fever.” I had never heard true Cuban singer [she was from Santiago, in the Eastern end of Cuba] singing jazz standards in English — and she did it without losing her Cubanidad. She would be singing in English and break into her cries “Ay! Ay! Ay!.” It was crazy! But she was so true to herself, so honest, so sincere. La Lupe was the person who made me want to simply be myself. Forget what the world wants you to be. Be happy being yourself.”

In time, her big band experience led her to create an all-women band, Alami.
“I would perform with the big band and after a while, I just realized the jazz groups were all men,” she says. “As a student, I would sing in different bands and wonder, because in salsa, or traditional son or timba you’d see women instrumentalists, but not in jazz.”
The project got a cool reception in jazz circles and had a difficult time finding work, but a performance at a festival in 2013 brought it to the attention of Canadian flutist and saxophonist Jane Bunnett.  Shortly after, members of the group joined Bunnett on the all-women Maqueque project which recorded two CDs.

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Still, for all the diversity of her sources — from Nina Simone, Selena, Aretha Franklin and La Lupe to European classical music, the connecting thread is the ritual music of the Orisha religion, perhaps better known as Santeria. It would seem hardly a surprise given than members of her family, most notably her grandmother, are believers, and she grew up hearing that music in many ceremonies. But it’s not her story. Ad once again, music, “the center of family life,” is what brought her to the religion, not the other way around.

“It’s my musical foundation,” she says. “It’s how I understand music. In fact, I was not interested in the religion. I was a bit scared of it, actually  — the spirits, the ceremonies, seeing people possessed. The religion got to me through the music — and it was on a record, not even in a ceremony. It was from classical music and Cuban composers such as Amadeo Roldán, Ernesto Lecuona, Alejandro García Caturla. What I heard was sublime.”

“Once I made that connection, I started to realize how much that music is the foundation of Cuban music,” she reflects. “That’s when I decided that I wanted to fuse my music with folkloric music. I was 17. I became a Santería follower much later, at 22. It took me all that time to go from the music to the practice. It was the music what helped me understand my roots and maintain that family tradition.”

An edited version of this story was published in Artburst Miami, March 18, 2019