Dayme Arocena Interview \\ ‘Something Different’

Tipped as “Cuba’s finest young female singer” by The Guardian in recognition of her debut album Cubofonia, Dayme Arocena talks to Nina Fine about why there is no easy way to describe Cuban music – unless you’re talking about soup.

It’s 3pm London time, and I’m waiting for another voice on the other end of the receiver. I’m greeted by the warm, friendly voice of a deep Cuban accent, and I attempt to introduce myself in Spanish.

Since 2015, Arocena has been living a whirlwind life. She’s been travelling non-stop, notably performing at Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Awards in connection with Havana Cultura. She signed to the Brownswood label, and delivered one of our favourite NPR Tiny Desk Concerts to date. In response to her list of achievements, Arocena meets me with instant gratitude. “I have to say, thank you. I feel so blessed and I think that I wasn’t ready to believe this type of life this soon.” Attending the music conservatory at only 9 years old, the speed of her success maintains an element of surprise for her, but it’s clear that music was her sole path: “my life is all musical and all I have in my mind is to make music.”

Dayme Arocena has been celebrated as one of the most innovative musicians of her native country, redefining the stereotype of what Cuban music is. She says, “music is at the soul of Cuban culture, and Cuban culture is mixed from the beginning.”

“With Cubafonia, I tried to make a journey… from the beginning to the end of my country”.

Sometimes adjectives can only go so far; Arocena reaches for a gorgeous metaphor: “I always compare Cuban culture with soup. When you make a soup, in Cuba of course, you put the container with boiling water and then you start adding stuff, a bit of salt, a bit of pepper, eh, tomato, potato… and at the end of the day, there is something beautiful.” Essentially, Cuban music doesn’t have a single influence; like anywhere, it’s a combination of sources. “Cuba is the boiling water”, she says. Arocena’s ingredients in this Cuban concoction demonstrate how world music injects new flavours into the jazz genre; arguably offering a more colourful experience than any tin of tomato soup. 

When I ask how Arocena‘s metaphor is brought to life in Cubafonia – taking into account her frequent travel outside of her country – she tells me: “with Cubafonia, I tried to make a journey… from the beginning to the end of my country. Of course I couldn’t put on it all the rhythms of Cuba that we have got, but I have a few in my album.” She cites, “tango, congo, rhumba, rhumba guaguancó and rhumba antigua, guajira, moluno, molero, cha cha cha, mambo, sombo” and more. Arocena isn’t only playing with the rhythms around her. She’s reinventing the expression of world music; an expression charged and inspired by her Cuban heritage. In the amalgamation of Cuban rhythms, layered chants and inflections of New Orleans jazz in her album, Arocena’s interpretation of her cultural roots communicate a vivid and sensuous picture of her country. It guides the listener through Cuba’s history and its future.

“When I am in Cuba”, says Arocena, “I feel like everyone is quite the same thing. But then when I am outside, I realise that we are something different.” It’s this difference that’s celebrated through the rhythms of Cubafonia, because, as the album title suggests, it is the “sound” (fono-fonia) of Cuba. Smiling in her voice, Arocena explains, “Cubafonia is a word that I created, it doesn’t exist. It is just an invention – Cuba, of course, is my country and ‘phonia’ means ‘musical sound’ in Latin.”

The album was born from a realisation; a song that starts out in a 8/3 swing- blues style could be reinterpreted as a Cuban rhythm. Arocena explains, “then I realised, what is the Cuban rhythm closer to 12/8, swinging? I realised the closer rhythm is guajira.” Arocena has centralised Cuba as the foundation of her music, rooting herself in her culture and its rhythms: “I was founding the link in between the music I was writing and my Cuban roots.”  

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In Cubafonia, Arocena’s exploration of Cuba not only involves rhythms, but language. Singing in English, French and Spanish, I wonder, was this multilingual result a decision from the beginning, or part of an evolution?  She says, “when I write a song  normally I write the music before the lyrics, and when I make the music, I write the music scatting.” She demonstrates, scatting to me down the phone. The cord seems to dance with delight as her voice flows from Cuba to my lounge. “So, when I write the melody, the scat gives me the language. The scat tells me, this song is going to be in Spanish, or this song is gonna be in English.” There’s something spiritual in Arocena’s musical process. She is guided by feeling, as much as the impressive knowledge gained from musical mentors; “[the language is] not a decision I make, because the music comes to my body and to my soul from the Heaven and it comes straight away with this scat … I write lyrics as I scat songs.”

Dayme Arocena has collaborated with several female artists leading up to her solo releases. We talk about the importance of working with other women in music. She describes the solitary reality: “when I started singing jazz I was the only girl in everything, the only girl in the band, the only girl in the concert, the only girl in the group. So I said, where are the girls, where are my women?” She explains that post graduating, “the first thing I did was to make a choir of young girls, I mean girls like my age, 19 years old, trying to make music something different, something intelligent.” It’s clear that Arocena not only feels an immense gratitude towards the women who have mentored her – such as Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnet in her project Malqueque – but also a desire to inspire other young women. In projects like the choir, “we had a lot of problems”, Arocena explains. “People didn’t want to believe in us.”

“What makes me sad is that people don’t know this young generation”

In Alami – another early project of Arocena‘s – the members performed with no shoes, reflecting the meaning of the album’s content, but hotels and venues “tried to change our spirit. They said to us, you have to wear heels, you have to lose weight, you have to put some extensions in your hair, relax your hair.” When I ask if the industry has changed, she tells me stoically that “it’s like that still today. … [but] this can be a beginning for a new generation of singers, talented singers of Cuba, who just want to be themselves.” Arocena is part of the community of performers paving the way for women too. You can only change a system from within, right?

Clearly a woman of bold spirit, Dayme Arocena has a taste for justice. I ask her which album has had the greatest impact on her. She pauses to give thought to the question, and I can feel the smile in her voice as she says, “I can tell you, the name of that album is The Best of Nina Simone. The track I really love is I put a spell on you then is Mississippi Goddam. You know what I mean? That’s the Nina Simone that made me love jazz. I didn’t know jazz properly before her…. people gave me albums of some other artists, and I couldn’t listen to them. When I listened to I put a spell on you, and I thought she was a boy. I discovered that she was a girl. I said, ‘who is that woman?! I want her music! I want her!’”

Dayme Arocena also names Buena Vista Social Club and Chucho Valdes as being important to her development as an artist. “All of those guys, they are seventy, eighty years old. What makes me sad is that people don’t know this young generation. We are the salt of all their influences, of Chicho and Arturo Sandoval. We are the product and the continuity of them, but we are also something new, we are the musicians of the 21st century.  We made it a better place in the music industry around the world.”  

Cubafonia is out now on Brownswood. Catch her at Jazz Cafe in London and find out her other live dates here.

Tweet @jazz_standard and follow Dayme Arocena @DaymeArocena.

JS | Nina Fine

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