FIVE THINGS You SHould KNOW ABOUT
April 12, 2021 | by Rusty Aceves
Daymé Arocena at SFJAZZ
This week’s Fridays at Five streaming concert features Cuban vocalist Daymé Arocena and her terrific band, filmed in November 2019. Here are five things you should know to get you ready for the show.
- She is one of the most exciting young artists working in Cuba today.
In just a few years, Havana-born singer Daymé Arocena has risen from a local phenomenon to global star, drawing comparisons in the music press to Nina Simone, Celia Cruz, and Aretha Franklin, while ingeniously blending Afro-Cuban music with jazz and neo-soul.
She first made worldwide waves through her association with the Canadian saxophonist and bandleader Jane Bunnett, whose ongoing Maqueque project was formed in 2013 to spotlight the long-overlooked wealth of talent represented by Cuban women. The band’s eponymous 2014 Justin Time album featuring Arocena won the Juno Award for Jazz Album of the Year. Soon after, she met the eminent British DJ and tastemaker Gilles Peterson during his first trip to the island, leading to her appearance on his popular 2014 Brownswood Recordings compilation Havana Cultura Mix: The Soundclash and her own recording contract with the label. Arocena’s career has been on a meteoric rise since then.
- Her upbringing and culture inform her globally minded, spiritual music.
Arocena grew up in the Diez de Octubre municipality of Havana in a home filled with music. All of her extended relations are musicians who brought classic Cuban song traditions firmly into focus, and her father is a soul and jazz-obsessed nightclub manager who constantly filled his children’s ears with the music of George Benson, Pérez Prado, Sade, and La Lupe. For Arocena, singing was as natural as speaking, and she began performing semi-professionally at age eight. The following year she entered a prestigious Havana conservatory for classical studies, directing the choir and honing her skills as a composer and arranger. She won the Marti y el Arte award in 2007, joined the acclaimed Afro-Cuban big band Los Primos as lead singer at 14.
Parallel to her devotion to music, Arocena has been a devout follower of Santería for many years, and the celebration of her faith is an intrinsic part of her art. The leadoff track to her 2015 full-length debut Nueva Era album, “Madres,” is a prayer to her maternal orishas, or deities, Oshún and Yemayá, and beyond the music, her spirituality also extends to her stage dress, which typically includes her signature turban and all-white ensemble that is traditional in the faith.
- Her albums show the diversity of her gift and an impressive evolution as an artist.
As a tantalizing preview, in March 2015 Brownswood Recordings released an EP called The Havana Cultura Sessions that included three tracks from Arocena’s forthcoming full-length debut along with a transfixing rumba version of Arthur Hamilton’s classic standard “Cry Me a River.”
Her aptly titled 2015 debut album Nueva Era was a triumph out of the gate, mixing traditional jazz instrumentation with Afro-Cuban percussion in songs devoted to love and life, from the humor of her mother trying to learn Russian via mandatory lessons in “El Ruso” and the soulful churn of “Don’t Unplug My Body“ to “Dust,” an impressionistic portrait of the detritus of everyday life. The album was listed as one of NPR’s “Favorite Albums of 2015.” The 2016 EP/LP One Takes is a collection of wildly diverse cover tunes including a reimagined version of Horace Silver’s “The Gods of Yoruba” from his 1977 concept album Silver ‘n Percussion, and a version of “African Sunshine” from the late trumpeter and Bay Area fixture Eddie Gale.
Arocena’s 2017 Brownswood release Cubafonía was a further expanding of her reach as an artist, bringing choral vocals, Afro-beat and New Orleans brass, the ever-present rumba, and a decidedly sophisticated approach to arrangements and orchestration, steeped in the clave and montuno. It’s a celebratory and expansive recording that looks fondly to the bottomless cultural riches of her homeland, and their influence around the world.
- She performed with a fantastic band for her November 2019 show.
Arocena made her debut at SFJAZZ in a double bill with Cuban piano phenom Roberto Fonseca in April 2018 during the 2017-18 Season, and returned for a headlining night on November 10, 2019 with music from her latest Brownswood album, Sonocardiogram. Her band was a masterful group of young Cuban musicians who all perform on the new album, anchored by pianist Jorge Luis Lagarza, who has worked with Arocena since her One Takes covers collection and got his start with the Cuban vocal great Ivette Cepeda. He currently leads the superb electro-acoustic jazz ensemble Real Project that also features the soulful bassist Rafael Aldama Chiroles, who performs on both acoustic and electric bass with Arocena for this concert and appears on her album Cubafonía in addition to Sonocardiogram.
Drummer Marcos Morales Valdés completes the trio, bringing a versatile and powerful pulse to the night that balanced an attuned sense of swing, muscular Afro-Cuban rhythms and deep soul grooves.
- Her set included music from her newest album Sonocardiogram.
The singer and composer’s latest album is a feast for the senses, and is her most audacious, accomplished release to date. With a title inspired by her mother’s work as a cardiac nurse who administers echocardiograms to observe a patient’s internal condition, Sonocardiogram was intended to be, in Arocena’s words, “something that was a snapshot of who we are inside.”
A jazz record bedded in Afro-Cuban rhythms, Arocena draws on the island’s intertwined rituals of family, music and religion. Nodding to Cuban greats like La Lupe, those inspirations carry the sound of Cuba’s sun-baked, vibrant daily existence. It is an honest, spare picture of where the vocalist stands both musically and personally.
“What I hope is that the listeners feel that love of life, that embracing life and wanting to succeed — but not succeeding in the banal terms of making some money or being famous,” she says. “I’m talking about being happy by being who we are, doing what we love, and staying open to whatever may come.”
The album was listed among NPR’s list of “Best Music of 2019.”
Daymé Arocena and her band perform "Para El Amor: Cantar!"
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