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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

How Beyoncé jolted the Cuban singer Daymé Arocena into a fresh era

Daymé Arocena in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Feb. 23, 2024. (Erika P. Rodriguez/The New York Times)

By Ed Morales

Running her fingers through her dreadlocks in an outdoor cafe overlooking San Juan’s grittily trendy Calle Loiza strip, Daymé Arocena reflected wistfully on an old flame.

“There’s a song on the album, ‘American Boy,’ that I wrote 10 years ago,” she said, discussing a track from her latest LP, “Alkemi,” due Friday. “He was a serious bass player from New York, the first person who introduced to me free jazz. But I felt the song was so simple, so easygoing, so ... pop, that it didn’t fit what I wanted” at the time.

“American Boy,” which oscillates between a Yoruban ñongo rhythm and an ’80s-style funk groove replete with Earth, Wind & Fire-style horns, distills the essence of Arocena’s new direction: a move from serious jazz to what she calls “pop” — with a focus on Afro-Latina pride. It’s a major shift for an artist who has made four eclectic albums that combine complex jazz arrangements with Yoruban spirituality and an occasional love song with English-language lyrics.

Arocena, 32, grew up in Santos Suárez, a neighborhood in Havana, with a family immersed in rumba folklore so passionately that they turned household objects into musical instruments. She entered the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory at age 10. “I had that double world of rumba at home and Bach at school,” she said and smiled.

As she grew into adolescence, Arocena became the lead singer of the big band Los Primos, then created Alami, a jazz band made up of all women. (It later was reformed as Maqueque with

Toronto-based saxophonist and bandleader Jane Bunnett.) In 2014, French DJ and producer Gilles Peterson, who founded the London indie label Brownswood Recordings, invited Arocena to participate in “Havana Cultura Mix — The Soundclash,” a collaboration between international electronic artists and Cuban musicians.

In some ways, Arocena’s tendency to mix Afro-Cuban folkloric music, post-salsa “timba” music and outside influences like R&B reflected the mid-2010s Havana scene that Peterson encountered, one that produced the funk master Cimafunk. He sang in Interactivo, a crucial band from this period that was “the soundtrack of an entire generation,” Arocena said. “Every Wednesday, all the cool kids would go to see them at the Bertolt Brecht” cultural center, she added, peppering her speech with an occasional English word or phrase.

By 2016, Arocena had played at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, and at Sub Rosa, a short-lived club in the meatpacking district of New York. As her profile rose, she performed with Cuban jazz titans like Paquito D’Rivera and Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Orchestra.

In 2019, she decided to leave Cuba for good and moved to Toronto, where her husband could secure a visa. “It was a very hard time for me,” she said. “The pandemic came, and that mixed with emigration problems, and it was so cold! I had left everything, it was traumatic. I didn’t feel like listening to jazz, any music that was very complex, or that made me think a lot. I wanted to hear things that relaxed me.”

Arocena retreated to music she heard when she was growing up, such as Brazilian pop vocalist Djavan and neo-soul diva Sade. “My dad would climb to the roof of our building with an antenna to catch a U.S. radio signal,” she recalled. “He was way in love with Sade, and I know that in the spermatozoid that is Daymé, there’s some Sade in there.”

When a friend shared Beyoncé’s “Black Is King,” a visual album rooted in her “Lion King”-inspired record, “The Gift,” Arocena was riveted.

“All of a sudden I see someone singing to the same orishas that I do,” she said, referring to Yoruban deities, “but from a pop perspective, that exploded in my head!” Her eyes widened as she recounted the story. Arocena had always admired African American singers, in part because the ways many of them use gospel influences resonated with her Yoruban religious tradition, and also because they had a level of self-possession she thirsted for.

She said she was inspired by the boldness of African American female artists: “You see her because she makes you see her. The Black Latin American woman is invisible and submerged,” she said, adding she was always taught to avoid making waves and blunt her outgoing personality. Arocena has a huge, provocative presence that still manages to be unpretentious and welcoming.

She decided that her next project needed to be produced by someone who understood her music and Afro-Caribbean folklore, and has a quirkily Latin American take on pop music. “Who is this Frankenstein?” she said and laughed: Eduardo Cabra, aka Visitante, the musical director of Calle 13, a Puerto Rican alternative hip-hop group.

The two first met backstage in 2015 at a Calle 13 concert in Toronto and reconnected when she sought him for the new album. “We talked, and she came to visit and wound up staying for months in an extra room I had,” Cabra said, taking a break from his busy recording schedule on the patio outside his house in San Juan. “She has an iconic voice — the kind you don’t need to see an image of to know who’s singing.” “Alkemi” may be pop for Arocena, he added, “but for me it’s a strong representation of the Afro-Caribbean.”

Even the album’s title has a back story that ties together the threads of Arocena’s vision. “It’s the Yoruban word for alchemy,” she said. “I wanted to be clear that I am talking about Black alchemy. It’s a cultural term that speaks of transformation. Here is a new Daymé, a new protest, a new mindset, to fight for a space that hasn’t been given to Black Latinas in the industry.”

Through Cabra, Arocena booked duets with Puerto Rican urbano/dembow singer Rafa Pabón (“Suave y Pegao”) and Dominican singer-composer Vicente García (“A Fuego Lento,” which has a strong reggae crescendo). While both of these tracks sparkle with Arocena’s seemingly limitless vocal range, she feels the stories they tell are even more important. “When have you seen a love story of a Black woman reflected in Latin America?” she asked.

Arocena convinced a reluctant García to appear in the video for “A Fuego Lento” with a personal plea. “I had always been influenced by Daymé’s roots in Yoruban music,” he said on the phone from a cafe in Bogotá, Colombia, where he lives. “As a person you could say she has a hard exterior but a sweet inside, very affectionate, very attentive.”

García stressed that he, Cabra and Arocena have a shared philosophy of building an imaginary bridge between Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica: “There’s a need for Caribbeans to connect as societies that have come from the same root and developed in different ways.”

Arocena, still glowing in the midafternoon sun, explained how she embodies some of those connections each day. “I wear dreadlocks that aren’t exactly Rasta, but Bob Marley said Rastafarians believe that if you’re Black and were born outside of Africa, there’s a reason,” she said. “When I devoted myself to Yoruban religion, I began to receive songs in my dreams, and now I’m dreaming pop songs. You judge yourself for wanting to please others and to fit into a jazzy world, but in the end you have to flow with the music you want to make.”

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