Lingua disponibile: ingleseSinger, composer, arranger, choir director and band leader, Daymé Arocena at 22 years, is a skilful, charismatic presence in Cuban music. Her diverse musical talents will take her fast into broader territories. She sings the chants and song repertoires but also, absorbs music of any kind, particularly jazz and Cuban neo-soul.
Dressed always in white she is visibly involved in induction into the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria. Daymé is the “daughter of two waters” so Yemaya (the mistress of salt waters) and Ochun (of freshwater) are her spiritual mothers, and she consults them on all decisions in her life.
Dayme’s family background is typically packed with music. She says that her grand-mother sings better than she does and after drinks at home, ‘sings like crazy.’ Her father has stacks of CDs which infused into his daughter’s soul with his favourite, George Benson’s everlasting Breezin’ with its smooth jazz groove. She says she has sung all her life and recalls her four-year old self performing on every block in her neighbourhood. ‘Fun stuff,’ she says, ‘Wearing crazy dresses and singing like a rumbera.’ Rumbas are the street parties in Cuba where you hear its exploding Afro-Cuban rhythms and chants – sometimes in Yoruba. Today, she often immerses fragments of rumba rhythms and outbursts of scatting into ‘normal’ songs, injecting singing and chanting drawn from Santeria. “Even though I’m a classical musician,” she says, “At school, I also sang Santeria songs. It’s the official Cuban religion for me; I studied its beautiful energy, all the elements from the sea, the wind and the earth.”
With Cuban education so famously diverse, Dayme’s parents sought out the music to suit with her broad-ranging talents. For two years, her mother and father searched for the perfect instrument, trying out violin, trumpet, piano and guitar. But, she says “I didn’t have the right hands for a piano or lips for a trumpet.” The only one that worked for her was Choir Directing (a category popular with Cuban children.) And then she was at music school and classes with the Primary teacher, Alejandro Garcia Caturla then at Secondary level, with Amadeo Roldan. From there, she began conducting the school choir and that, she believes, came closest to singing; her voice became her instrument.
Her talent was quickly spotted . At the age of 8 she joined a local choice D’Senitos which introduced her to more American and English songs. She appeared with them on national Cuban TV singing “Let it Be”. Daymé’s life changed when in her teens, she won an award titled Marti y el Arte in 2007, and aged 14 became principal singer with a big band, Los Primos. She was advised to explore beyond classical music and listen to the early jazz singers from Ella, Billie and Nina Simone to the wonderful Brazilian icon, Elis Regina. “I started to listen to all the old singers even when I didn’t like them,” she revealed. Her first CD, “The Best of Ella,” she didn’t like! She didn’t understand Ella or Elis: “This isn’t jazz,” she said, “I don’t want to sound like an old woman!” She liked Erika Badu and Gil Scott Heron – but didn’t understand them. Billie Holiday took some time to grow on her but she eventually she loved. She still has the same CD: dirty, battered and precious. “But the first jazz singer I really liked was Ella because she got me crazy when I listened to her scatting.” In 2010, she joined a jazz fusion quintet, Sursum Corda, and performed at a jazz conference in Norway, and later, in Bluefields, Nicaragua. In the mean time, Winton Marsalis had landed in Cuba, saw and heard this unique voice and walked over with his trumpet, to join her in the gorgeous romantic classic, “Besame Mucho.”
On finishing school, Cuba’s Minister of Culture invited her to sing in the Jazz Plaza and there, Daymé met the hugely popular Canadian jazz saxophonist Jane Bunnett, who was stunned by what she heard. Jane’s knowledge of Cuban music she has worked with for over 30 years with the island’s musicians as well as those in America and abroad. Jane encouraged Daymé’s development and in May, 2013, invited her to Toronto for the Sistering Festival, a fund-raiser for homeless women in Canada . She already had an all-girl band from her school days and called them Alami and sang her own songs with them. But then Jane had the idea of taking that band and united the young, talented girls with the big name Cuban jazz players, calling the band Maqueque. And so, at 22, Dayme was going global!
It was not long before Daymé came to the attention of François Renié, Communications Director at Cuban rum maker Havana Club and founder of the Havana Cultura* platform, which co-produced the Havana Cultura album series with Brownswood Recordings. He recalls “Gilles and I met Dayme for the first time on Gilles’ first trip to Cuba, with Edrey [from Grammy nominated Cuba band Ogguere] improvising a rumba session at a friends place. She started to sing and we were amazed. She was just a teenager”. She already knew and listened to the singers, rappers and musicians involved in the Havana Cultura project but was considered too young to join in. But, just a few years later, her time came with the Havana Cultura Mix project, which saw Gilles Peterson mentoring selected producers from around the world to make a record in Cuba with local musicians. She auditioned, prompting all the producers to decide they wanted to work with her. In the end, she sung on three tracks on the album, including the massive “U Knew Before”. Seeing huge potential in her, Gilles invited her to London to perform at the album launch event, where she enchanted the packed out audience, and it was decided she should record a solo project for Brownswood Recordings and Havana Cultura. The announcement brought out a loud, rich, infectious laugh instantly recognizable as Dayme’s deep and chocolaty voice. “My first record, here,” she squeals. “It’s a crazy dream.”
Dayme’s personality is wonderfully light-hearted, amusing and sometimes emits laughter from within a song and a voice as versatile and changeable as a bird’s in different seasons. Her expressive descriptions of her life and love are perfect examples of a range of textures. They carry fascinating narratives sometimes describing odd places like ‘Dust.’ This stunning selection of musicians surrounding her creates the perfect overall – and unpredictable – sounds.
Daymé Arocena’s debut EP “The Havana Cultura Sessions" will be released on Brownswood Recordings on the 30th March. An album will follow later in the year.
*Launched in 2007, Havana Cultura is Cuban rum maker Havana Club’s global platform for the promotion of contemporary Cuban creativity. Its main activities include showcasing the work of artists across various disciplines—including music, visual and performing arts, cinema and literature — through a rich multimedia website as well as the development of cultural projects.
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