Her Hop appearance is part of a tour that takes her to cities throughout the US, including April 8 in Burlington, Vermont, and April 13 in Boston. While at Dartmouth, she also will take part in a free artist talk titled “Using Your Voice,” on Wednesday, April 11, at 5 pm, a conversation with Taylor Ho Bynum, director of the Barbary Coast Jazz Ensemble.
From a country renowned for its musicians, Arocena has quickly become the voice for a new generation of talented Cuban millennials reimagining their African roots through a contemporary lens. A veteran performer although only in her mid-20s, her powerful singing and buoyant music defy expectations, drawing on the rhythms of Afro-Cuban traditions, the nimble athleticism of jazz, and the catchy hooks of pop melodies. Her unstoppable charisma—whether in Spanish, English, Yoruba or other languages—charms audiences worldwide. She often performs in head-to-toe white clothing in deference to her devotion to Santería, an Afro-Caribbean religion based on Yoruba beliefs, and she weaves luminous Santerian chants into her shows.
Critics have hailed this vivid new figure on the world stage: “Ms. Arocena unites cosmopolitan musicianship with deep roots” (New York Times). “Daymé looks set to join the group of women artists who are described as global divas” (Billboard). NPR’s Felix Contreras called her voice “a deft combination of Aretha Franklin’s soul and the sabor of Cuban music queen Celia Cruz” and praised “her surprisingly mature songwriting…as well as an irrepressible personality that projects warmth and fun, not to mention a million-watt smile…an extraordinary window into the talent waiting to be discovered in Cuba.”
In 2015, her debut album Nueva Era was selected by NPR as one of the best 50 albums of the year. Her newest album, Cubafonía, is a soulful mix of Latin, jazz, and R&B influences, a perfect blend for her powerful vocals. NPR featured the 2017 album in First Listen: “There is not a dull moment on Cubafonía. It is a major statement on the progress of Daymé Arocena as an artist for the ages. And it reminds us that the best music moves the body and the spirit.”
Arocena showed artistic determination from an early age. Born and raised in Havana in a two-bedroom house shared with 21 other people in Havana’s predominantly Afro-Cuban Diez de Octubre neighborhood, one of her first memories is of being four years old and trying to persuade her parents to let her sing in a talent contest as part of a local festival, she told Globalgrasshopper.com. “Eventually they let me, and I sang a song by a Mexican singer called Selena. I was moving my arms like I was crazy and my parents were totally embarrassed. But everyone else was saying, ‘This kid, she can sing.’ I won the competition and I remember eating a lot of cake and holding the dolly that I won…I’m still exactly the same person, that girl singing without her shoes on, being a little bit crazy. It’s just now people recognize me and enjoy me as I am.”
Accepted at age 9 into one of the country’s rigorous, state-funded music schools, she experimented with a series of instruments—violin, trumpet, piano and guitar—before deciding her niche was choir directing. Along the drilling of a classical music education, she also discovered jazz, and was invited at age 14 to sing with the Los Primos Big Band led by Cuban jazz great Joaquín Betancourt. “Everyone at school knew I could sing, so they asked me if I’d join the band,” she told Globalgrasshopper.com. “They gave me two standards to learn—Bye Bye Blackbird and My Funny Valentine. I didn’t realize I was singing jazz until we started playing festivals in Havana.” Los Primos afforded Arocena her first gigs outside of Cuba, including in Canada, which has long had supportive relationships with Cuban musical institutions.
After school and Los Primos, however, she found many doors closed to her, she told Globalgrasshopper.com. “All I wanted was to be myself, but no one would give me the opportunity to sing in their cafes or hotels because I didn’t have the right ‘look’ for them. They didn’t want a black girl singing without her shoes on. People used to tell me I looked weird, and that I was off-putting for tourists because I looked like a slave.”
She persisted, however, developing a reputation among Havana’s underground. Feeling that women were marginalized in jazz, she founded an all-women band Alami. “Since I began doing jazz, I noticed that I was always the only girl in the group. So I told myself, ‘What’s up with the women?’ It’s not really feminism; it’s about balancing things out.” Alami attracted the attention of Canadian jazz saxophonist and bandleader Jane Bunnett, who had been working with Cuban musicians for decades. She invited Arocena to play in Canada and to sing on Bunnet’s album Maqueque, which won a Juno award in 2015.
In 2014 when British music producer Gilles Peterson brought a group of emerging electronic producers to the island as part of a Havana Cultura project to find rhythms and voices for a new album, Arocena sang at an open mic, she told Globalgrasshopper.com. “I was the only person there who wasn’t famous in Cuba. So I sang my song and went home thinking maybe one day I might get to sing with one of the other performers. They called me back and invited me to London!” She sang on the EP and then was invited by Peterson and Havana Cultura to make an album of her own, Nueva Era (2015). Her most recent album, Cubafonía, came out in 2017.