Music

Cuban Powerhouse Daymé Arocena Comes To Little River’s The Citadel

Written By Helena Alonso Paisley
May 13, 2024 at 6:20 PM

Cuban singer-songwriter Daymé Arocena presents her newest album, “Alkemi,” at The Citadel on Saturday, May 18. (Photo courtesy of Manuel Molina Martagon)

Cuban singer-songwriter Daymé Arocena, who performs at Little River’s trendy The Citadel on  Saturday, May 18, has always been an artist. Arocena remembers herself singing before she spoke. Composing, too, came naturally, Arocena says in a phone interview from Mexico City, where she has been recording. When she was four or five, she recalls, her mother would often hear her daughter humming to herself, and would ask, “Where did you hear that?” Nowhere, she would reply, “I created it.”

“I feel like a bridge to bring music to the earth,” says Daymé Arocena, a devout Santera who after being initiated as an acolyte of the sea goddess Yemaya began dreaming songs. “I feel like I am just the messenger.” (Photo courtesy of Alana Serbiá)

Recently, that creative itch has taken Arocena on a new old path. New, because she has begun recording in Puerto Rico with Latin hitmaker Eduardo Cabra, of Calle 13 fame, and old, because, after living for five years in Canada, she is making her home again in the Caribbean, albeit on a smaller—and freer—island than her native Cuba.

Some listeners may know Arocena best through her Tiny Desk concert of 2016, a no-holds-barred performance where, dressed all in white, she began with “Madres,” an a capella invocation to Yemaya, the Yoruba goddess of the sea for whom Arocena was crowned as a Santería initiate. With rattles, a rain stick, a bass guitar and a minimalist jazz piano providing the rhythm, Arocena filled the small studio space with her voice, her devotion and her unbridled positive energy. Other songs from that set placed her firmly in the Latin jazz tradition, a genre she is as much associated with as Cuban folkloric music.

Although classically trained, with conservatory bona fides to prove it,  Daymé Arocena considers her parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins to be her greatest teachers. (Photo courtesy of Alex Ayala)

“Alkemi,” the recently released album that brings her on tour to Miami, is something of a departure from both of those styles. This new record is unapologetically pop, but, as John Schaefer of the Soundcheck podcast observes, it’s a pan-Caribbean pop undergirded with the Yoruba rhythms and jazz harmonies that are an inescapable part of Arocena’s musical DNA. “Alkemi” marks a new journey for the singer, one she is excited to embark on.

“I don’t overthink it,” she says, when asked her about the apparent move away from the styles that until now have defined her. “I got my roots, I got my blood, I got my ethnicity, I got my ancestors. I’m not going to put anything away from myself that’s already integrated. I just add new things, I don’t take things out.”

And how could she take those things out, even if she wanted to? Although classically trained, with conservatory bona fides to prove it, she considers her parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins to be her greatest teachers. The two-bedroom apartment she shared in Havana with thirteen members of her extended family may not have had a single musical instrument in it, but it was always filled with music.

“My household made a big impact in my life,” says Arocena. “My family, they are music lovers…I grew up listening to them playing rumba without any instruments. Like, they would play rumba on top of, you know, the tables and anything else, like anything was an instrument for them.”

Arocena’s great aunt, whom she calls “grandmother” (her real grandmother died giving birth to Arocena’s mother), was responsible for her earliest training as a singer. “She’s more artist than I am,” affirms Arocena. A cassette tape of Cuban boleros was her grandmother’s favorite soundtrack.  As a girl, Arocena would learn their romantic, overblown lyrics, mirroring the dramatic styles she heard on her grandmother’s bootleg tape.

“My deepest, earliest memories were singing boleros for her,” she says. When she was a child, she says, her voice was so powerful that it scared her.

“I had such a huge voice, I had like a lion voice,” she says.

The education Arocena received at music conservatory helped her to hone that prodigious instrument and provided the classical training that she depends on as a composer. But while students there were permitted to sing American Big Band songs from the jazz era, their own musical heritage was off limits. Only when Arocena graduated and formed her own band could she begin performing the music of her ancestors.

Daymé Arocena was aware of her voice’s power even as a child. She thought she had a “lion voice” and it scared her, she says. (Photo courtesy of Manuel Molina Martagon)

Pop, too, was a genre that she had always been interested in, but she felt as a young person that it was off-limits, never having seen a Black woman who looked like her make it as a Latin American pop star. Part of Arocena’s struggle, one she shares with many women, was the thorny matter of discovering her own beauty. For outsiders, the matter was settled: “She just glows and glows and glows,” says arts maven Beth Boone, who first brought Arocena to South Florida for a performance at The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse in Miami. “I think that is the beautiful result of getting to know yourself and love yourself and accepting yourself and knowing your strength in the world.”

In Puerto Rico, with Cabra to guide her, Arocena summoned the courage to see her possibilities as a trailblazer in the pop world. “Alkemi” in one sense refers to her own interior transformation, leading her to claim her rightful place at the Latin pop table. In another, it’s the way Cabra, in his inimitable manner, infused her songs with novel sounds. When I ask who, then, is the alchemist spinning gold on “Alkemi,” she or Cabra, she doesn’t hesitate:

“We both are,” she says.

The love song “Suave y Pegao” is a case in point of how an industry great like Cabra, who last year won the Latin Grammy for producer of the year, can put a shine on already strong material. Puerto Rican rapper Rafa Pabön joins Arocena on the track, his low key reggaeton inflections contrasting with and somehow enlivening her soaring, lyrical vocals. Like dark chocolate and sea salt, the kick is all the more delicious because it’s not what you’d necessarily expect. The song, like much of the album, is fresh and fun and has a chill, easy-to-listen-to vibe.  “All I want is for people to feel it,” the singer/songwriter says. “I don’t want to satisfy my ego anymore. I want people to connect.”

Daymé Arocena is best known for her work in jazz and Afro-Cuban folklore; her new album, with its Latin pop slant, may change that. (Photo courtesy of Manuel Molina Martagon)

Boone confidently predicts that Arocena is on her way to global prominence, and that, like Cabra, she will soon have multiple Grammys to her name. What’s so captivating about her artistry, says Boone, “is that you can watch her growing and evolving…constantly pursuing new genres of music. I can see soul and funk and rhythm and blues making its way into her vocabulary, her literal and figurative vocabulary.”

Boone adds that she believes Arocena is one of the most important singers on the music scene today. “And I don’t specifically say the Cuban music scene or Cuban musicians, but just musicians, full stop, right? Singers, full stop. Worldwide. Full stop.”

(WATCH: Daymé Arocena, “A Fuego Lento” from “Alkemi”)

She says that Miami is a mecca, too.

For herself, Arocena says that her art form is not about genres at all, but about vibrating on the same frequency with her listeners. Music, for her, can be as natural as breathing or as mysterious as a dream.

“I used to dream songs,” she confesses. “I feel like a bridge to bring music to the earth. I feel like just the messenger. So that’s it.”

WHAT: Mishu Music at The Citadel presents Daymé Arocena

WHEN:  8 p.m., Saturday, May 18

WHERE:  The Citadel, 8300 NE 2nd Ave, Miami

COST: $35 plus $5.33 service charge

INFORMATION: mishumusic.com/live/ or   daymearocenamusic.com

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music, and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com.

 

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