Interview: Daymé Arocena (April 2016)

Usually it would be rude to reveal a woman’s age, but there are always exceptions. Especially when it comes to an impressive young musician, composer, arranger and choir director who, at the age of 24, has already released two albums, toured the world, signed for Gilles Peterson’s label Brownswood Recordings, been praised by legends like Wynton Marsalis and Jane Burnett, and is representing one of the brightest rising stars of the new Cuban music scene.

Then, when it comes to Daymé Arocena, you can’t observe traditional etiquette. The Havana born artist is a free-wheeling and free-spirited musically gifted soul, all you have to do is listen to her words and enjoy her alegría cubana.

We met her few hours before her latest London gig at Rich Mix, held as part of La Linea Festival 2016. It also happened to be the day that the world learned Prince had died, and Dayme greeted us by softly singing her tribute to the “Purple One”: a Cuban rendition of ‘Kiss’.

Our conversation began with us trying to understand in which outfit she felt more comfortable with. Was it the musician’s, the composer’s, the arranger’s or the choir director’s?

I don’t realise that I’m all of those things. The crazy thing is that when you write your own music, it’s hard to have someone to understand what is in your mind and that’s why I try to conduct and lead everything. So, I’d say that I feel better in the conductor’s clothes. Yes, that’s when I conduct the choir. I’ve studied that for nine years in school and I have a bossy character too! I have the best feelings when I write my music and I realise that the musicians play what is in my mind. When they play the piece in the way I imagined it, I think that it’s all about that moment. Those other names that I have like ‘arranger’, ‘composer’, ‘director’ are just some ‘blah blah blah’, they are long names which say one thing because I’ve only got the one name, which is Daymé!

Daymé is also a synonym of music. Since she was a child, she has always been surrounded by a rich collection of sounds and music, as well as singing herself:

I started studying music when I was 8 and I got into a conservatory when I was 10, but I had spent my whole life singing. My mom always says that I started singing even before I could talk. In addition, all my family likes music. My parents aren’t musicians themselves but they used to play a lot of good stuff at home, they played everything. For example, my grandma loved rumba, bolero and everything related to traditional Cuban music and my mother likes Cuban folk too, whereas my father is more oriented towards American jazzy stuff. I had every kind of musical influence at home; all I had to do was to listen to the music that my parents played. Then, when we had parties in my neighbourhood, everybody just used to play something. They would come with some instruments and play them or they just sing. That’s normal in Cuba. It’s not just my beautiful family which is like that, but it’s the Cuban family! People sing everywhere and there’s always some music everywhere you go!”

So if Daymé hadn’t focused on music, what would she have focused on?

Boys maybe? Actually I can’t imagine my life without music. It’s sad because there’s nothing else. Maybe dancing? I like to dance. But in reality, music is all I need [singing]”

Despite her young age, the Cuban musician is already an inspiring ambassador of her country’s artistic talent. She provides a voice to the Caribbean island’s traditions and all the influences that Cuba has welcomed.

You have to find a balance between what you have inside and what is around you, and you need to get your own way to express that in your music. In Cuba, people pay attention to all kinds of stuff. People like music, especially American and Brazilian, but we are still a bit outside of the world music thing. We need more information about it, because it’s still hard to get and listen to music from abroad. For example, we still don’t have Wi-Fi and only a few of us can use the internet but then we don’t have credit cards neither, so we can’t buy music. It’s hard, but one day, we hope that it will get easier and everyone will be able to listen and enjoy music from all over the world. People are going to have more information to study, listen to new music and develop the Cuban one”.

In fact, Cuba has just started a new era in its history, so we asked Daymé what is going on at the moment, and how does she feel about it?

To be honest I don’t know what’s going on and what Cuba will become. Since I created the new live show, I’ve been travelling a lot and I’ve spent only a few months in Havana. Last year I was home in January and February, then some weeks during the summer and a few days in October and December. This year has been even worse. I just spent some days there in February, while I spent the other months travelling all around the world. But yes, something is finally changing there! For example, we have Wi-Fi in some areas, but the most important thing is that we have more hope. I’m talking about the general feeling of the Cuban people. We have the opportunity to build our own businesses and open companies. They’re still only small ones, but we have the opportunity now. 

The Cuban music scene is also changing. People are really excited about the new music and musicians coming to Cuba and we really need them. We need people coming to Cuba and going outside Cuba. We need people exchanging information, giving us new vibes. Cuban people have always given their vibes to everyone else and it’s also good to receive them.

I always give my vibes to people and I don’t need to be on stage or in front of the audience to do that. I try to be honest with myself and other people. I call a spade a spade. That’s what I am. If you like how I am, that’s beautiful. At the same time, if you don’t like it…that’s fine too, just introduce me to someone who I can get along with.”

There’s no doubt that Daymé gets along well with Gilles Peterson, after meeting two years ago they have worked together on many different and intriguing projects related to Cuba:

I met Gilles in Cuba in June 2014. Everything started from Havana Cultura. They were looking for singers who could record with DJs from around the world and the name of the project was Soundclash. They put together an open mic session and paired DJs with singers, so I started to work with four of them and they included three tracks that I recorded in the album that they released. Then I came to London for the launch party and that’s when Gilles asked me if I wanted to record some new music with him, and of course I answered yes. I went into the studio for a few days and recorded a session with him. Then, he eventually asked me if I was interested in signing for his label Brownwood and releasing an LP? These are the kind of questions that you can’t say no to! You don’t even think twice about the answer. So I got the contract and we released my first CD called Nueva Era which was released last year.”

However, less than one year later, there’s already a follow-up to Nueva Era:

There’s a new CD coming out titled ‘One Takes’. I don’t consider it to be my new album though, because it is a compilation of songs that Gilles loves and proposed that I sing them. He initially just wanted me and the other musicians to try them when we were doing the sessions for his documentary La Clave, so I sang them with other Cuban musicians, who were simply incredible. They just had to listen to those songs once and they had already learnt them. Initially, Gilles proposed nine songs to us, but we eventually decided to release only six of them. The exciting thing is that the EP was entirely recorded in one take: there was so much energy that we recorded the songs straightaway. I just had to add some backing vocals once in London, but the first take was already enough”.

As our nice chat with Daymé came to an end, we asked her about what music she is currently listening to?

I listen a lot to Nina Simone who is my queen. At the same time, I don’t listen too much to other contemporary Cuban singers like Omara Portuondo, because I feel really related to them, it’s almost like they are part of my family. However I listen to my idols like La Lupe: singers and musicians who are teaching me from the past. Then I also like some Cuban composers like Marta Valdés or Ignacio Villa [better known as] Bola de Nieve, and I love to listen to good singers like Pancho Céspedes and Gema y Pavel. I like this kind of music with influences from songwriters and composers. Actually, they’re also quite complicated to understand, but I love them because they’re so soulful and so Cuban”.

Which is also the reason why we love Daymè Arocena.

[justified_image_grid ng_gallery=242]