STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
In conjunction with the exhibition “Drapetomanía: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba,” AfroTaino Productions presents Daymé Arocena March 24 at the African-America Museum in Philadelphia.
When asked what it means to be Afro-Cuban, the 23-year-old Arocena described a melting pot of Nigerian and Spanish ways of life. “To me, Afro-Cuban culture is a song between Mama Africa and Daddy Spain,” she said with a robust laugh to match her expressive, powerhouse voice. “It’s something new that was born in Cuba.”
After collaborating on a Juno-winning album by Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnet, Arocena sang on three songs for the “Havana Cultura” contemporary Cuban album series project organized by the rum maker Havana Club. Arocena will soon be working on a five-song follow up release to her debut album on Brownswood Recordings, “Nueva Era” — which made National Public Radio’s list of the top 50 albums of 2015.
One of the light-hearted Arocena’s calling cards is dressing in all-white. “When (Havana Cultura mentor British DJ Gilles Peterson) met me, I was in the very beginning of my initiation,” she said, referring to induction into the Santeria religion. “He said: ‘I like that. I like to see you in white clothes.’ We just kept it.”
After a childhood appearance on Cuban TV singing “Let It Be,” Arocena joined a big band called Los Primos, as a principal singer, when she was just 14. In 2010, she joined the jazz fusion quintet Sursum Corda and toured internationally. This tour is her first trip to the U.S. performing her own music.
Her backing band, the all-female ensemble Alami, she formed in 2013, recruiting her friends from school. “I was always the only woman in the band,” she said of deliberately putting together a group of all women. “I wanted to see more girls (play). I wanted to share my experience with my friends. I just wanted to push them — to show them jazz is not a gender music.”
Before being encouraged to try piano, violin and guitar in school — and deciding that her voice was her best instrument — Arocena was “4, 5, 6 years old” when she fell in love with her father’s Whitney Houston cassette tape. It was her first exposure to American music and culture.
“When I started to grow up, I got a love for other singers — Billie Holiday, Nina Simone,” she said.
When asked about the U.S. lifting a decades-old trade embargo with her country last year, Arocena said the biggest change she’s seen is public WiFi in Cuba. She said it’s only available in designated public parks and use is restricted to one hour at a time
Of her visit to Philadelphia, she was hopeful that her music would cure anyone that arrived to the show feeling blue, and that the people’s reaction would be: “I want to listen to her one more time.”
“Every person has a mission in the world, in life. My mission is to make music and give my music to everybody. Music is freedom … and I just want to give that feeling to people,” said Arocena.