Daymé Arocena

Vocalist Daymé Arocena is the latest signing to Gilles Peterson's Brownswood label and a bright new talent from Cuba. Her debut album Nueva Era is out on 8 June

When speaking on duality, the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki emphasised how two entities can be dependent and independent, harmonious and inharmonious. “This expresses the oneness of duality,” he said. “Not two, and not one.”

For 23-year-old singer Daymé Arocena, her trajectory has always been maintained between two worlds. Her religion of Santería is a syncretic faith in which Roman Catholicism runs parallel to Yoruban mythology from west Africa. Her vocal palette includes jazz and Cuban music. Her education comes from classical training and rumbas (parties) from the street.

I’m not clear about my first memories but I can’t remember my life without singing

Even her name is from both her mother’s and father’s. “My daddy is Dagoberto and my mum is Angela Mercedes”, she says. “This is the reason my name is Daymé. It is Da from Dagoberto, y is ‘and’, and is from Mercedes. Da y Mé.”

The duality of Daymé Arocena is reflective of a vast pool of cultural and spiritual influences. It is a phenomenon that has been captured on her debut album Nueva Era, set for release through Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label. And, as her name suggests, is a phenomenon that has existed since birth.

Interacting through Sound
Born in the lively neighbourhood of Diez de Octubre, one of the oldest municipalities in Havana, Arocena did not cry in the same hysterical fashion as a normal child. Instead she made a gentle meowing noise that would rarely bother her mother at night.

As she developed, baby Arocena began emulating the noises she heard from the TV. “I’m not clear about my first memories but I can’t remember my life without singing,” she says. “My mum says that I started to sing before I talked. I was copying the melodies from the TV news and she used to be like, oh this kid is a little bit crazy... When I started to talk, I created my own words and my own lyrics for the music.”

At first, her parents could only see these efforts as characteristics of her infancy. But when Arocena was five, Dagoberto and Angela were forced to change their perspective after a particular incident.

“It was a kid's day at a hotel and there was a competition for kids to sing,” recalls Arocena. “They said, all the kids that want to sing come here and we'll give a gift for the kids that sing best. I went over and my parents were like, what are you gonna do? I was like, I want to sing, I want to sing. They said, ok good.

“It was a huge competition. Lots of kids sang lots of things but when it was my moment, I sang a song by Selena [popular Mexican singer, now deceased] – I think it was 'No Me Queda Mas'. I sang a really adult song and everybody was like, what? They were all clapping.

“I won the competition and was given a beautiful baby toy. Then my parents said, she really sings. At that point they started to pay attention to me.”

“My family is so musical but not professionally. My mum sings beautiful, my grandma sings better than me,” says Arocena. “My aunts, my uncles, my cousins are rumba players.”

It doesn’t matter whether you are musical or not, it’s about the instrument that you select

Another influence came from her father, who loved jazz music and had a large collection of CDs. As a child, she remembers listening to jazz the whole time, asking her father what the songs meant and singing in her own version of English.

At the age of 10, having studied with her parents, Arocena applied for the Alejandro García Cartula conservatory of classical music, named after a regarded Cuban composer. But in order to be taught at this prestigious school – one out of four of its kind in Havana – she had to overcome a rather large obstacle.

“A lot of kids try to get into that music school, thousands of kids,” says Arocena. “But you have to take three huge tests, and they eliminate people after each one. At the end, only 20 kids are allowed into the school and a lot of beautiful and talented ones don’t make it.”

Another part of the application process involves choosing an instrument, and choosing the right one for your physicality.

“It doesn’t matter whether you are musical or not, it’s about the instrument that you select. If you select the wrong instrument, you’ve lost...

“In my case, I don’t have the right teeth for flute, saxophone or trumpet, and my fingers are too short for guitar.”

I'm always laughing, smiling and joking because I'm like a street girl

Luckily for Arocena, her parents chose choir conductor and she was enrolled into the Alejandro García Cartula conservatory, where she would spend five years.

Street Girl
Studying classical music for 10 hours a day, six days a week, Daymé Arocena might have found that the fun that she had previously experienced through music would begin to slip away. But this was not the case.

“In Cuba, we study classical music when we are at school,” says Arocena. “But everybody knows you can be an amazing musician without the school because you can learn everything from the street. If you want to have fun, just go out to the street you're going to have so much fun, trust me...”

So, as well as studying music at the conservatory, Arocena was learning from the streets of Diez de Octubre.

“My neighbourhood is a poor neighbourhood but the people are street people and enjoy singing and dancing. You can feel that in my music. Even when I am a jazz singer, I really love to get that influence from the street. Diez de Octubre is of course a rumbas [party] neighbourhood. It is one of the things that I think is important to me. I'm always laughing, smiling and joking because I'm like a street girl.”

She then goes on to speak about a recent experience she had in her neighbourhood...

“I remember two weeks ago, I was talking with a friend. He was asking about this guy who I had a crazy relationship with. I said, we are not together, he don’t want me anymore, he got back with his ex-girlfriend. My friend said, no that's not true, everybody wants you. He then said, you are in his heart, he is still in love you.

“My friend started to sing this song about it and everybody started singing along. Then it turned into a party! On the street, thing’s are spontaneous.”

Moving Forward
At 15, Arocena began studying at the Amadeo Roldan conservatory – also named after a regarded Cuban composer and leader of the Afrocubanismo cultural movement in the 1920s. “It is the music school in Cuba,” she says. “Maybe 80% of the most famous Cuban musicians have been there.”

In her first year at Amadeo Roldan, she was selected by the influential big band conductor Joaquin Betancourt to play in his jazz band Los Primos. Through the group, she was able to develop her musical palette through performing traditional jazz – something she had grown up with through her father’s collection of CDs.

“It was my first jazz school in Los Primos. We played standards and I learned everything there,” she recalls. “Joaquin was not a teacher at Amadeo Roldan but taught us outside of the school. He started looking at the best students and chose them for his band. I was the singer for the band and the only female in Los Primos.”

Why the girls don’t want to play jazz?

After she had joined Betancourt’s group, Arocena was also introduced via her cousin Edrey Riveri (from the Grammy-award winning fusion group Ogguere) to François Renié, the founder of the Havana Cultura project for Cuban arts and culture, and Gilles Peterson, who was visiting Cuba for the first time.

While Arocena was too young at the time to work on the Havana Cultura project with Renié and Peterson, this first meeting played an implemental role in her career as an artist today.

Professional Musician
Already at 15, Daymé Arocena had begun to perform with perform with professional musicians in Havana.

As she progressed through the Amadeo Roldan school, Arocena also played in a quartet named Sursum Corda with her friends. While the group performed at a jazz conference in Norway and a cultural interchange in Bluefield Nicaragua, it’s male-heavy membership forced its female vocalist to ask an important question, “Why the girls don’t want to play jazz?”

Having been the only female performer in her previous groups, Arocena realised it was time to form her own band. Thus the all-girl jazz group Alami was born.

“I just invited my friends to do jazz with me,” she recalls. “They were like, are you crazy that is for boys. I was like, no come on we should try it. We then formed Alami and it was beautiful.”

At 19, Arocena had graduated from Amadeo Roldan and was invited by Rafael Bernal Alemany, Cuba’s Minister of Culture, to perform with Alami at the 28th Havana Jazz Plaza in 2012. During their performance, Canadian saxophonist and Jazz Plaza veteran Jane Burnett was impressed by the all-girl group and shouted “Viva la mujer” (“long live women”) before joining them to play on stage.

After the performance, Arocena was invited by Burnett to perform at a festival in Toronto – also discovering that Burnett had previously worked with her uncles on various musical projects.

So in 2013, Arocena performed at the Sistering Festival, a fundraiser that runs under the motto, ‘Serving homeless, marginalised and low-income women in Toronto’. Burnett, Arocena and a group of female musicians from Cuba then collaborated on an album entitled *Jane Burnett and Maqueque.

Santería is not from Africa and it’s not from Spain. It is a religion that was born in Cuba

A year after the Sistering Festival, Gilles Peterson returned to Cuba to reconnect with Arocena and brought her onboard for the Havana Cultura Mix project. She then recorded The Havana Cultura Sessions EP, was brought to London to launch the mix project and recorded her debut solo album Nueva Era for Peterson’s Brownswood label.

Having graduated two years before, Daymé Arocena was already established as a professional musician.

Rules of the Saints
When Peterson returned to Havana in May 2014, Arocena had just begun her year-long initiation into the African Cuban faith of Santería, also known as the Regla de Ocha (rules of the saints).

The religion is rooted in the Yoruba people of west Africa and was brought over during the Cuban slave trade between the 15th-19th centuries. While many African slaves were forced to convert to Roman Catholicism by their Spanish masters, the Yoruba people continued to practice their native religion alongside. It is for this reason that the religion is described as syncretic.

“It’s not African and it’s not from Spain. It is a religion that was born in Cuba,” says Arocena. “I always said that the mother is Catholic, the father is the African religion and their kid is Santería.”

Today, between 75-100 million people practice Santería, with a large majority having joined the faith through initiation. It is a process that involves an assignment of two orichás (saints).

“When you get a saint, you have one mum and one daddy,” says Arocena. “My mum is Yemaya, the saint of the sea, but I have another mum and she is Oshun, the saint of the river. My father is Obatalá, the saint for peace and mankind. He is the oldest and always dresses in white.” Arocena also only wears white but states that she had done so previously without a saint and that it was in fact, her style.

In your life, when you are going somewhere, you should always keep your things close to you

At the centre of Santería’s practice, is the importance of inner balance – which allows one to live in harmony with nature and humanity. In order to maintain this balance, and avoid accumulating negative energy, a practitioner of the faith must consult an oloricha (priest or priestess) or babalawos (priest of the major orichá, Orula) for the oracular process of divination. Through divination, the priest or priestess will translate a message from a chosen saint that is intended to provide spiritual guidance.

“In my case, I can’t for my whole life wear yellow, black or red clothes,” she says. “In the ceremony to get your saint, we have one day with a saint who reads your past, your present and your future. In that moment, they tell you a lot of rules that you should keep in your mind. They’ll say you can’t eat this food, these clothes.”

For Arocena, she was told that she couldn’t travel with luggage, only a handbag. The rule was provided through the following parable.

“One day, God [there is only one in Santería] held a competition for the birds,” she says. “All the birds knew that this one bird would win so they did something bad to get it out of the competition. That bird got sick and when he got to the competition, it was already over. God said, so sorry but you are late.

“They explained to me that, in your life, when you are going somewhere, you should always keep your things close to you. If you don’t, you can lose everything and be late.”

A week before she was initiated on 24 April, when catching a flight from Cuba to London, Arocena was provided with her lesson from a first hand experience.

“At the airport, I put my ticket along with my things to be scanned,” she recalls. “When I got my basket back I said, where is my ticket? My tour planner was like, you have it no? I said, I put it in the basket because I take out all my things.

“At that point my ticket was lost and I started to get crazy. Then a policewoman came up to me and told me that she took it to check something. I was like, what are you crazy? Then the people from the airlines were calling us like, this is the last call, bla, bla, bla. I was like wow, unbelievable I should always keep my ticket close to me. I was missing my flight. I ran a lot and even though I'm asthmatic, I kept running. I was the last on the flight.

“It's like they told me, you should always pay attention to your things because you will always lose them. It's just like that, it’s life.”