Since Obama reopened America’s diplomatic relations with Cuba last year, much has been made of the imminent Americanization of a culture that has supposedly previously kept itself fiercely independent. Gone will be the ‘50s Chevrolet Bel Airs cruising down the streets of Havana and instead enter a Starbucks and McDonalds on every corner. Yet, cross-cultural exchange has been thriving in Cuban music ever since a clave rhythm crept into a Dizzie Gillespie composition and Afro-Cuban jazz reached popular consciousness. Our appetite for these strangely unique rhythms now brings us the singer Daymé Arocena.
Having been mentored by Gilles Peterson, Arocena released her debut album, Nueva Era, in 2015. A statement of Cuban music’s modernity, the record combined traditional arrangements with electronic influence to gesture towards a new style of playing, as referenced by its title. With her latest release, Cubafonia, Arocena now returns to her musical roots, writing the album as a sonic record of her country’s musical heritage, focusing on the intersections between jazz, pop and soul there. It was with this comingling of tradition and modernity that Arocena took, barefoot, to London’s Jazz Café stage.
From the opening number, Arocena’s enthusiasm for her music was infectious, encouraging the excited crowd to cha cha and clap along to tracks like Negra Caridad and La Rumba Me Llamo Yo, whilst she energetically moved, sang and led her band. Comprising guest trumpeter Yelfris Valdes, as well as drummer Ruly Herrera, bassist Rafael Aldama and keys player Jorge Luis Lagarza, the band was rhythmically inventive and seamlessly transitioned from intense improvisations to balladic softness throughout the show. Highlights included an imaginative solo from Lagarza and lightning-fast runs from twenty-one-year-old Aldama on Cubafonia’s lead single Mambo Na’ Ma.
Ultimately, though, this was Arocena‘s night, as Gilles Peterson emphasised upon introducing her to the stage. Notwithstanding the fact that this was her largest show in London to date, she performed with an ease that spoke of a confidence in finally being where she belongs. Scatting like George Benson over instrumental breaks, singing in Yoruba, French and Spanish, as well as taking to English for the neo-soul stylings of Don’t Unplug My Body and Maybe Tomorrow, Daymé Arocena represented Cuban music with passion and flair that neither Starbucks or McDonalds could ever touch.
[This piece was originally published on 16/04/17]