Music

Singer Daymé Arocena talks Nina Simone, La Lupe on way to Global Cuba Fest in Miami Beach

Posted By Fernando Gonzalez
March 18, 2019 at 2:58 PM

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, powerful and expressive. From song to song, her phrasing may hint at filin, classic soul and R&B, or she may break into her own style of jazz scatting — and yet the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. 

There is no accounting for her irrepressible, engaging personality or how she makes it all sound as her birthright. Arocena and her quartet are part of a promising double bill with Cuban singer and producer Cimafunk (aka Erick Alejandro Iglesias) as part of the ongoing Global Cuba Fest 2019. They will perform March 30 at the North Beach Bandshell in Miami Beach.

Born in a music-loving family in the 10 de Octubre neighborhood of Havana, Arocena, 27, grew up immersed in religious and secular musical traditions. Her talent was so obvious, even early on, that at 5 she joined a neighborhood choir. At the insistence of a local music teacher, Arocena’s parents at 10 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.”

She graduated to the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory, where, as she continued her classical studies, she also learned jazz. The school’s big band introduced her to Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and, especially, Nina Simone. In time, jazz became a passion. 

Jazz and Cuban music fans in North America probably first heard of her as a member of Maqueque, an all-women Cuban band that collaborated on two albums with Canadian flutist and saxophonist Jane Bunnett. But Arocena has been developing her own career, taking part in other recordings such as “Havana Cultura Mix: The Soundclash!” and the EP “One Takes,” which introduced her to French-born DJ Gilles Peterson, who signed Arocena to his label. She has released two albums under her own name, “Nueva Era” ( 2015), and “Cubafonia” (2017). A third album, “Sonocardiogram,” will be released later this year.

Artburst recently spoke with Arocena from her home in Havana.

Santeria music and rumba at home, European classical music at school, how did you get involved with jazz?

The Amadeo Roldan Conservatory has a symphonic orchestra, a concert band and a big band. I was 15, and as a vocalist, I was assigned to the choirs. But the big band needed a singer, and they had heard about me so they asked me. I didn’t know anything about jazz big bands. 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 classical pieces. That’s what I knew how to do. I had no reference about the 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, and I had no idea about what I was doing, so I asked the guys in the band to help me, and they got me 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. 

What was it about Nina Simone that touched you?

When I first heard her sing, I didn’t know if it was a man or  a woman. I heard a voice that was outside my standard categories. There was something uncommon there, and it moved me. I remember her voice was warm but dark, and there was something mystical in the way she sang. And also what an interpreter she was. I first heard “I Put a Spell on You” and then “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.

You also admire Cuban singer Lupe Victoria Yoli Yamond, who became famous as La Lupe. What was it about her that touched you?

She was a favorite of my grandmother. 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 a 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.

The ritual music of Santeria is a constant reference in your music. Is it important to you for religious or musical reasons? 

It’s my musical foundation. 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. And once I made that connection, I started to realize how much that music is the foundation of Cuban music. 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 that helped me understand my roots and maintain that family tradition.

Daymé Arocena and Cimafunk will perform beginning at 7 p.m. March 30 as part of Global Cuba Fest 2019, presented by Miami Light Project, Fundarte and the Rhythm Foundation. The show will take place at the North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., in Miami Beach. Tickets cost $35 in advance or $40 at the event. A limited $5 discount is available for students and seniors. Go to RhythmFoundation.com.

Photo of Daymé Arocena courtesy Eduardo Rodriguez.

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