Daymé Arocena: “Your music is a car and Cuba is the gas station”

Cuba’s musicians are preparing for a flood. Unless Trump reneges on Obama’s promise to lift the embargo, the island is about to experience an influx of culture and commerce that could dilute a truly unique scene. But it also gives the world a chance to discover sounds that have been long slept on elsewhere. Cuban singer, composer and bandleader Daymé Arocena is making sure the rest of the world is ready for what her country is about to bring.

She was only a teenager when she met Gilles Peterson, on his first trip to Cuba for the Havana Cultura project. Now 24, she has since been mentored and signed by the Brownswood boss, and just released her sophomore album, Cubafonia, a record that defends Cuban culture.

Arocena is connected to the island by more than birth. She was raised singing songs from Santería, the country’s official and indigenous religion. “I studied its beautiful energy,” she says, “and all the elements from the sea to the wind and earth.” These influences still slot into her repertoire alongside George Benson-esque scatting (an influence taken from her father’s CD collection) and rumba vocals.

We checked in with Arocena ahead of her European tour to find out more about her new album and what the future of the Cuban music scene will be.

Has Cuba helped you develop as a musician?
Cuba is a musical country. The progress and development of an artist is part of the cultural life we live there. Your music is like a car and Cuba is the gas station where you have to go to get what makes you move forward.

Because information it's limited there, for more than 50 years, musicians are always creating new rhythms and different styles to keep this fresh energy. In my case, the musical scene of Cuba pushes me everyday to make better and more interesting work. It's the best tool I have to get later international success.

Tell us about your relationship with Gilles Peterson.
He is my Franco-British producer, friend, defender, teacher, father. He believes in all my craziness. Along with the Havana Cultura team, Gilles was wanting to work with me since I was a teenager. That dream came true. I think he saw the light in my eyes and the power of my musical spirit.

How is this album different from your debut?
Nueva Era was unexpected, experimental and innocent. It has a world music taste. We made it almost improvising. Cubafonía is premeditated, secure and mature. It's a Cuban album to defend our culture. It talks about some of our most authentic rhythms and history through the songs I wrote.

It shows how connected we are with other countries and our influence in the music world by using things like jazzy harmonies and a big band brass section. I tried different languages that made musicians of the island exchange ideas internationally. By doing this, we’ve tried to call out to the musical industry to pay more attention to contemporary Cuban creators.

This album is blessed with our old school maestros and the new young musical crowd.
I made this album to be from Cuba to the world and my people gave me the approval. Now I feel stronger to make it universal.

What is the future of the Cuban music scene?
To make the future better for Cuban musicians, all we need is industry. I can see my people in the future creating different musical styles and languages. That is what we do best. We are going to break the bubble that we are in now. That keeps us out of the game. When that moment comes, music globally is going to be nicer and it will make it easier to transform this world into a better place. Good music equals good energy. That is all we need.

Daymé Arocena plays the Camden Jazz Cafe on 14 April and Cubafonia is out now on Brownswood