Daymé Arocena doesn’t mince words when it comes to her goals: “I’m fighting for Cuba,” she says on the phone from Havana, where she was born 25 years ago and still lives today. Though the singer earned international acclaim early into her career, thanks to co-signs from saxophonist Jane Bunnett and impresario Gilles Peterson, two studio albums in she’s still musically grounded in her home country.
Arocena is determined to avoid clichés and keep innovating, even as her music is framed by Cuba’s rich musical tradition and her practice of Santería. She’s just as likely to cite Sampha and Kendrick Lamar as she is La Lupe and Mongo Santamaría, and her first band, Alami, was intentionally composed only of women. Participation in another all-woman outing, Jane Bunnett and Maqueque, earned the singer a JUNO Award in 2015.
Arocena’s latest album, Cubafonía, released on Peterson’s Brownswood label, shows her trademark throaty, assertive voice over everything from big-band fusion to New Orleans shuffles (lest we forget the Spanish tinge) to stripped-down ballads. She has the range and fearlessness required to tackle all of it, along with the energy to turn all of her live shows into bona fide parties.
While touring Cubafonía and brainstorming for her next album (or “cooking the meal,” in her words), the singer spoke with JazzTimes about the challenges and rewards of putting Cuban music front and center. NATALIE WEINER
JazzTimes: What do people most often get wrong about Cuban music?
Daymé Arocena: Cuban music is complicated. It’s a mixed country, with mixed culture and mixed races. So Cuban music is mixed-race too—from Africa, from Spain, from Asia. You can’t say, “OK, this is Cuban music,” because there are a lot of kinds of Cuban music. There are a lot of things in it that don’t really fit into the concept of “Latin.” We are more than that.
What are your favorite musical destinations outside of Cuba?
There are a few different places in the world where I really get crazy about their music. In England, I got really interested in how they mix all kinds of music with rock. I’m in love with people like Sting, who show how you can be an amazing musician but at the same time be a pop star—how you can have fans even if your music is not simple with stupid lyrics.
Of course Brazil, that’s our sister—this country that’s so similar you see yourself in the mirror. Jazz is a bridge between Cuba and the U.S. and Cuba and Brazil; it’s like we’re a triangle—three places where every musician should go and study and understand.
When did you first start tapping into the jazz aspect of Cuban music?
I didn’t know anything about jazz, but when I was studying at [Havana’s] Conservatorio Amadeo Roldán, they were looking for a singer for the big band. I didn’t know what a big band was; I just knew that they were looking for a singer. And, for me, that was enough.
What was great is that we had the big band in school, because I didn’t know shit! Without that, jazz might have never been a type of music that I’d sing. That was the moment I discovered Mongo Santamaría and Chano Pozo, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. I was around 15 years old. Jazz was really healthy for me because I used to listen to a lot of pop, toxic music. Those artists saved my ears and, really, my life.
How has your relationship with improvisation changed over the years?
When I started singing jazz, improvisation seemed crazy. I was like, “This is way too complicated for me.” Once, this hip-hop group in Havana that loved jazz asked me to sing with them. That was the first time where I had an idea running around in my brain but I couldn’t open my mouth, I couldn’t say anything. I was feeling this idea, but I couldn’t open my heart.
That was the moment I decided to jump into jazz jam sessions. The best way I learned was by [trading fours with instrumentalists]. When the trumpet player was improvising, he was giving me information that I could then try to imitate. I didn’t have to improvise for a long time—it was just little moments where I had to be free.
Improvisation is not an exercise anymore, because it’s so incorporated into my brain and my blood and my heart. I tell every single young singer, “Don’t think about it as something complicated, because improvising is like talking! You don’t write speeches to talk around your house; you just talk. So if you know how to talk and how to defend your idea in words, then you can learn how to do it singing.”
Religion is a big part of your music. Does that make you feel more connected with American jazz musicians whose work is very rooted in gospel?
Of course, from beginning to end! Religion is a cultural phenomenon, but the first people in this world started singing because they believed in something. I remember the first time I went to a gospel show in New Orleans. Within seconds after I got there, I was crying and I didn’t know why. Even though I didn’t understand what they were saying, I just felt this energy, and it was stronger than I could explain.
What does it mean to you to make Cuban music?
When I’m onstage and making music, I’m representing my house, my country, my people, my generation. Sometimes it seems like the world forgets that Cuba is part of it. Even the critics. Sometimes critics listen to our newer generations of musicians and say things that aren’t true, or make weird comparisons. It’s my responsibility to use this opportunity to show what we’re about. That’s my mission in life, and that’s why I came into this world: to help create a new view of Cuban music and this new generation of Cubans.