Daymé Arocena is a burst of light energy. A million shattered pieces of Orion nebula in the form of singer-composer-star, spreading love, positivity and ancestral blessings—an interstellar body in the constellation of Afro-Cuban world music. Her smile and deep hearty laugh illuminate any space, and is just as much a source of joy and resilience for the African diaspora as it is an indication of the new era of Cuban sound.
I first met Daymé just before she performed at the Theater la Mer, an amphitheater on the Mediterranean coast, in a tiny canal town in the South of France. Fresh off of Gilles Peterson’s Havana Cultura Sessions and inking a deal with Brownswood Recordings, then twenty-five-year-old had just released her debut album, Nueva Era.
Dressed in the traditional whites of Santeria, she chanted and danced barefoot across the stage using her voice as a bata drum for an entranced audience. Critics were already drawing comparisons to La Lupe and Celia Cruz, but you could tell there was something different about Daymé’s approach to Cuban music, something fresh. She was still so young, and her music leaped genres so fluidly, it didn’t seem as if she intended to be categorized at all. I made the decision then, that I’d eventually take a special trip to her native Havana to talk to the singer-composer in person—about her spiritual practices, multi-genre approach, and breaking the traditional mold of Cuban jazz.
I arrive from Guanabo via taxi to a traditional building in central Havana. Things have changed a bit since last year, (one of which is Dayme’s recent grammy nomination) and I'm excited to get into a conversation about it all. Daymé’s cheerful, raspy alto greets me from the top of the landing and the first thing I notice in her cozy apartment is color. Sharp blues. Sultry Reds. A vinyl dust jacket for Cubafonia, her most recent and arguably her most celebrated work, sits aside nonchalantly on a coffee table, unaware of it’s own splendor. When I ask how recording in Havana has been different than recording in London and what she’s learned in the process, she guides my attention towards her alter(s) to Yemaya—the Santerian Orisha to which she pays homage. Daymé orders lunch from a local spot, and as the drums of “La Rumba” play in the background I remind her of the first time I heard her half way across the globe, on a stage surrounded by water, and asked her how what I heard on stage relates to what she’d just showed me on the altar.
So... Santeria clearly influences your music.
Santeria is music. I fell in love with Santeria’s music before anything else. Music was the way I was introduced to it—it was the conduit to Santeria. Not the opposite. I remember being a kid living with my grandma—her ceremonies, learning about the orishas, that Yemaya rules the waters. But I wasn’t interested in any of that then. I remember when my grandma was crowned in the practice and became a saint. She was the only link I had with Santeria.
When did you officially make the connection?
When I was seventeen there was a competition in Havana for young composers of classical music. I used to write a lot of music for choirs. I really wanted to win the competition so I said to myself, I need to do something authentic. Something different. So I started investigating old deep Cuban music. And I discovered Santeria batas and I was so amazed because, like, these three drums can do anything. You can feel them as they move you forward—there’s something magical with bata drums. I tried to play them but I wasn’t good. So I decided to take bata drums to the choir for us to sing them. I made a cycle of songs—one for Ochun, one for Yemaya and one for Oya. All the choir had to do was the sing the rhythms. [beat boxes] I split the drums into separate harmonies—hearing the choir sing all those drum cadences in so many parts—my love for Santeria music deepened after that. Then I started getting more into the religion. I started writing music more connected with Santeria but my music is a fusion of many different styles because I’m a classical musician I feel so close to classical music, jazz, I feel so close to everything.
Tell me what’s behind the name of the album Cubafonia and how you’ve grown since the Havana Cultura Sessions.
Fonia is Latin for musical sound. Cubafonia is the musical sound of Cuba. I don’t have the ego to say I’m the musical sound of Cuba. The main difference between the new album and the first is I didn’t record the first album in my country. I wasn’t with my people when I made it. I was in mostly in London. But with this album, I’ve come back to my roots. For me it’s an album, where every single track is a rhythm of Cuba. “Lo Que Fue” is bolero, and cha-cha-cha. “Maybe Tomorrow” has some guajira. “Mambo Na’Mà” has mambo. “Como” is Cuban pop. Then there’s changüi, old rumba, tango congo, bolero, pilon…all of those rhythms are Cuban but from a new point of view.
I wrote the music of this album while traveling, but I came back to Cuba to record it. I came back home, where after traveling I was rediscovering my own world. I felt all my ancestral influences—I was deep into my culture. I’d listen to some of the tracks after recording and sometimes I couldn’t believe those were my songs. I was feeling like wow. I couldn’t have written this. Someone else must have written these songs. I’d listen and think I didn’t write them, they must have been a gift from somewhere.
At what age did you begin performing?
When I was four years old my parents took me to a party they were having at my uncle’s hotel. There was a singing contest and whoever wins the contest wins a toy. My mom didn’t want me to do it because I was only four. My father pushed me to enter—he thought I could win. I sang “Yo Tenia Una Esperanza” by Selena. At the time she was all over Cuban television and my father had some of her recordings—so I’m singing and moving my arms like crazy on the stage—I was only four and won the competition. My mom has pictures of me holding the toy with cake on my face and balloons. That was the moment that my parents said, “Oh, we think this kid has talent.” After that, they went crazy. They got a piano teacher for me.
You graduated from one of the most prestigious music programs in Cuba. I hear entry is extremely competitive.
Yes, music education in Cuba—in general, when it’s special like musical school or sports or something like that—they have to select really carefully who’s going to get the opportunity to study, because they have to give you everything—the instruments—everything. In Cuba, we don’t have much industry for instruments. Most of them are donated to us by other countries. Each music school can choose about twenty kids each year. We have four musical schools in Havana. I went to Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes San Alejandro. To get into that school is so competitive even for little kids because again, there are only twenty slots per school. It took me two years of auditioning to get in. I tried out at eight years old but didn’t get accepted until I was ten. I auditioned for four schools, each school a different instrument—flute, trumpet, guitar, saxophone. I finally got accepted for voice and choir conducting. I studied for five years until I reached the professional level and became a classical musician.
Then you started an all female band just out of high school?
Yeah, I decided to make the band all female because I was nineteen years old and always the only woman at the concerts and festivals, in the band, in the schools—I was like where are the girls? Jazz is a type of music based on improvisation. When you take the stage you don’t know how it’s going to end—you just have to trust the musicians, but it’s risky. And women—most times, we aren’t pushed to be aggressive. We don’t want to go to the stage without knowing what’s going to happen. Until a few years ago we didn’t invite many girls to have a shot. So in jazz, it’s like we have to have courage and be just as aggressive onstage as men because they aren’t afraid of experimenting and making mistakes. Sometimes, we need a few mistakes to make jazz. So the band was an example of girls getting onstage, taking risks with the music. Improvising. This is the message that I say to every little girl that comes to me and says, “Oh, I like jazz, but I don’t know where to start”—I say, go, take the stage, and see what happens, don’t worry about the mistakes! Go for it! You have the power in your hands to say I don’t care. I’m going to do it, I'm going to take the chance because I believe in myself. It’s just that.
Internet service in Cuba is functional but limited. Do you think it helps or hurts your creative process not having round the clock access to the internet?
I think this isn’t a phenomenon—what we’re living now in Cuba. This has been for a long time. There were always barriers. In the old days, listening to English speaking music was prohibited. Rock, the Beatles. They said that was the music of the enemies. So the musicians in Cuba started to make newer and newer rhythms. Because people were bored of listening to the same type of music, musicians started creating new Cuban music, different rhythms—of course, we need internet because we need to know what’s going on around the world, but without constant internet we keep our authenticity, our creativity—we keep the spirit of the country—because we have to make new things and are not copying other cultures, it pushes the Cuban culture forward.
When people think of Cuban contemporary music they think of the artists who left us a legacy, like Buena Vista Social Club–but those musicians are so far away from the reality young Cubans are living right now. Most of them have passed away. And the ones that are still alive are in their eighties. What’s happening with young generations of Cuban musicians is so creative and progressive—there are so many different genres and rhythms that we are creating ourselves. There are new artists making Cuban music in another way. And we’re showing this new side of Cuba to the world.