Daymé Arocena is a composer, singer and choir conductor. Photo: Pablo Dewin
Daymé Arocena is a composer, singer and choir conductor. Photo: Pablo Dewin

Daymé Arocena channels Santería tradition through classical and jazz

AL DÍA interviewed the multi-talented and multi-faceted musician ahead of a Berklee College of Music performance that was canceled. Her story is still one the…


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Daymé Arocena believes a musical journey has always been connected to her life. 

Her mother even claims that — during her earliest days in her native Havana, Cuba — she would “sing before [she] could even speak.”

Picking up on her daughter’s interest in music, Arocena’s mother took her to piano lessons. As Acrocena explained, the piano and her voice are the instruments she primarily focuses on today. 

“Piano is my best friend,” said the singer.

After starting lessons, Arocena got involved in her community choir. From that point forward, all signs pointed towards music. 

Arocena joined a music conservatory at age 10, where she studied choir conducting, and would also continue to study the practice as she progressed in her music career.

Today, Arocena is a wholehearted singer, composer and choir director. 

She has amassed numerous acknowledgements, accolades, and awards, such as the Marti y el Arte award, which she was given in 2007.

The singer-composer has released three full-length LPs. Her 2015 debut Nueva Era, 2017's Cubafonía, and Sonocardiogram in 2019.

On Sonocardiogram, Arocena channeled Santería and Afro-Cuban culture to craft a narrative exploring her own free-spiritedness.

Arocena also released a collection of covers in 2016 — titled One Takes — which were originally created for a documentary. 

The singer took on NPR’s Tiny Desk stage in the same year.

Arcoena’s talent soars past her performing ability, as highlighted in her Tiny Desk concert. The multi-talented musician also took a recent step into the world of education.

Last month, Arocena published a video series in collaboration with the Library of Congress. 

The series elaborates on topics such as vocal improvisation, music composition, Afro-Cuban influences in music and rhythm, and tips for emerging artists. 

The video series came after a virtual concert created for the Library of Congress, a performance rooted in jazz fusion, Santerían chants, Afro-Cuban rhythm and contemporary R&B.

Daymé’s music journey

Studying at her conservatory, Arocena was in a musical environment dominated by studies of classical European pieces. 

The singer explained that conservatory students in Cuba are not often introduced to work outside areas of European classical, and that Cuban music, jazz, contemporary and pop music were not discussed.

“Anything not related to European classical, you had to find in the streets,” said Arocena.

Still, Arocena has a strength in classical as well as jazz music. When she was 15-years-old, Arocena discovered jazz.

During the time when she was studying music in her homeland, Cuba was without internet access, and Arocena was never provided a computer in her earlier studies.

It was not until 2019 that Cuba gained free access to the internet.

“You don’t even get in contact with a computer, ever. I just started using Pro Tools and GarageBand. I used to write my music on paper,” said Arocena. 

After finishing studies at her conservatory, Arocena would soon find herself recording music of her own. Her debut EP, in addition to Nueva Era, was released in 2015. 

Thanks to the connections she made through collaborating with hip-hop artists in Havana, Arocena was able to book some shows in nightclubs, later leading to a connection with her current record label.

Arocena then began releasing music through the London-based label, Brownswood Recordings.

Arocena’s music gained traction, and soon enough publications such as NPR and The Guardian were buzzing over her talent and unique ability. To Arocena, the attention was a surprise. 

“I wasn’t expecting any of that,” said Arcoena. “I was a really young Cuban girl with a lot of dreams and no idea about how the world outside the bubble of Cuba worked.”

Even when people started buying tickets to her shows, Arocena was humbled and impressed by the attention she was receiving.

After 2016’s One Takes, Arocena was ready to again work hard on a new album, her second full length LP, Cubafonía.

Arocena describes Cubafonía as a “journey through the diversity of Cuban music,” but believes she would need “three or four Cubafonía’s” to properly create a complete portrait of Cuba’s rich musical landscape in its entirety. 

After Cubafonía’s release, listeners expected more rumba and dancefloor from Arocena in later releases. Looking inward at the response, Arocena decided to get more personal for the next LP.

The composer describes Sonocardiogram as a “journey through [her] own personality,” and stated she wanted to speak about herself.

The title itself is a reference to the electrocardiogram, and how the process accesses the conditions of a patient's heart. Sonocardiogram references the same process, only as if observing one’s condition through a response to sound.

It’s not surprising that Arocena is influenced by unique concepts such as an electrocardiogram in relation to sound, as the singer also gravitates towards unique artists and people difficult to compare with others.

Some of Arocena’s influences include Nina Simone and La Lupe. Arocena describes Simone’s work as “the complex of all the things” that inspire her musically.

“I will listen to different songs of Nina, and I will think, sometimes, that’s a different person singing,” said Arocena. “She had the power of interpretation.”

Daymé Arocena, going forward

Earlier this year, Arocena was set for a performance at the Berklee College of Music, but the event was unfortunately canceled.

Arocena still hopes to move forward with plans to play at the Berklee Performance Center sometime in the near future, but recording music is a focus now.

Arocena has plans to soon travel to Puerto Rico, where she will record her next full-length album. 

She revealed that this record will be a bit more “up-tempo” than previous outings, and will channel dancefloor influences: another switch-up from her previous LP, and a reflection of our current state. 

“After more than one year in quarantine, I feel like all I want to do is to dance,” said Arocena.


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