At only 25, Cuban singer and songwriter Daymé Arocena has earned a staggering amount of praise given her relatively short recording career. Yet it only takes a moment of watching her in her element to understand why the kind words have been pouring in.
From the first notes of “Madres” during her Tiny Desk Concert performance, Arocena’s honesty and artistic vulnerability are on full display. She commands her makeshift stage with the song, a prayer to Oshún and Yemayá, the two spiritual mothers of her Santeria faith, transitioning from striking power to near whisper with remarkable precision. Even though she’s no longer an “iyawò,” she still takes the stage dressed in all white, a wardrobe choice that reinforces the deep spiritual ties to her musical output.
Despite feedback that’s already hailing her as an artist for the ages, she shrugs off the immense praise. What’s key to her is the clarity of her message. “I just try to be honest with myself,” she demurs from London by phone, “and play the music I feel in my heart.”
Arocena will get the chance to delight Bay Area audiences when she appears Aug 13 at San Jose Jazz Summer Fest. Her Sunday evening performance will appear in syndication in September as part of a Jazz Night in America broadcast featuring her and fellow Fest artist Cyrille Aimée.
She may have only popped up as a bandleader a few years back, but Arocena was trained in Cuba’s prestigious musical conservatories and has been working on the bandstand for more than a decade. She was performing with the group Los Primos at 14, and was leading the all-female jazz group Alami at 18 when she joined Jane Bunnett at a jam session in Havana. The Canadian multi-instrumentalist has been a champion of Cuban music since her acclaimed project Spirits of Havana.
In the past, Bunnett’s work with her Spirits of Havana band raised the profile of musicians like Dafnis Prieto and Yosvanny Terry to international acclaim. However, as Bunnett noted in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, her work alongside husband Larry Cramer in their band had yet to catapult young female musicians to similar success.
Arocena and that jam session remained in Bunnett’s mind for years, and she returned to Cuba in 2013 with a goal to form an all-female Cuban ensemble. She invited Arocena to join, and the result was the group Maqueque, whose self-titled debut won a Juno Award for best jazz album.
In an interview in 2016 with Havana Times, when asked about the situation of women in Cuban jazz, Arocena was frank. “They make it really difficult for us: there are no options, no venues, no information,” she said. “First, [women] have to be ‘tough,’ so that they’ll say ‘they perform like men.’ If they’re singers, they have to be ‘tough’ so that someone will say ‘she’s a musician.’
“There’s quite a number of us out there,” she added. “There’s plenty of women with talent, but you have to be brave to go into the lion’s den.”
She stepped out of her supporting role and entered the fray as a bandleader in 2015 with her debut Nueva Era, and has been lauded by critics ever since. Yet once again, that debut came to fruition years after making a stellar first impression.
In this case, François Renié, Communications Director at Havana Club and head of the Havana Cultura initiative, caught her performing in 2012. But it wasn’t until two years later, when Renié was working with DJ, tastemaker, and Brownswood Recordings head Gilles Peterson on Havana Cultura Mix – the Soundclash! that the great talent he witnessed earned an invite to audition for a project that needed vocalists.
And what a splash it was. When the project wrapped, Arocena featured on three of the album’s tracks, and her large presence on the record earned her an invite to the release party in London. Before returning to Cuba, she signed a contract with Brownswood and recorded sessions that would yield the Havana Cultura Sessions EP and Nueva Era.
In the aftermath of Nueva Era, Arocena noticed that both fans and critics seemed to have a rather limited understanding of her country’s deep musical heritage. With that point in mind, Cubafonía’s willfully eclectic sound comes into focus. The album is a showcase of the heritage of her nation, birthplace of the mambo and cha cha cha and ancestor to Latin jazz and salsa.
“This album is my way to say thank you to my country,” she shares. “It has eleven songs and 13 different Cuban rhythms. It is my way to show the contemporary way to make music in Cuba.”
Given the way she describes how deeply engrained music is to the Cuban people, maybe she was bound to inherit these traditions. Arocena may be the one singled out at the moment, but she understands her musical acuity, developed through years of study in class and on stage, is an outgrowth of her homeland.
“Havana is the most beautiful city I have seen in my life,” she reveals with little hesitation, even after two years of touring the globe. Based on her description of Havana – a city stopped in time and bathed in color, especially vibrant hues of blue in variant shades, where people engage with one another well into the morning without the detaching luxury of the Internet – it’s no wonder why she’s so eager to spotlight it on Cubafonia.
“I’m just one little person in an island that has 11 million people,” she says, “and trust me – we are 11 million people, and 12 million musicians.”
Daymé Arocena performs on Summer Fest’s Silicon Valley Community Foundation Hammer Theatre Stage at 5pm Sun Aug 13. If you haven’t purchased your tickets for Summer Fest, visit our ticketing page for one and three-day passes. To keep up with the latest info on SJZ and Summer Fest, follow San Jose Jazz on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.