A fresh perspective on Cuban music

an interview with Daymé Arocena
8 februari 2018
text: Robbie van Zoggel, photo: Johan Moeskops

With her second album Cubafonía, released last year on Brownswood Recordings, singer Daymé Arocena creates a fresh perspective on Cuban music with a mix of spiritual roots, neo-soul and jazz. At the last So What’s Next Festival we had a chat with Daymé about freedom, Anderson .Paak and pigs.

 

At the record signing booth you were bouncing like crazy on a Thundercat track. Does music get you moved and shaken easily?

‘I’m really open minded about music, I pay attention to everything. I can listen to Rihanna, Drake and Chopin, there are no borders. But I can say that the artists that most affect me are not in this world anymore. La Lupe is from my country Cuba, and became a very famous singer after moving to New York. But the queen diva in my life is Nina Simone.’

“We break society into

pieces and those pieces

in even more little pieces.”

What makes her so interesting?

‘Her message was strong, even when her life was filled with negativity. She had something to say. You know what’s my point? I’m a songwriter. Every single song I write is mine. I feel I came to this world to send a message and that’s the same thing with Nina. More than making reinterpretations of songs or singing jazz standards. She was doing what she felt she had to do. She was fighting for rights but it was a bad time for her to live. Basically she had to destroy her own life to keep her message alive. That’s very destructive.’

What is your message?

‘In the time I’m living, my music is about good vibes, good energy and spirituality. I feel this world is missing that, it’s fucked up. We break society into pieces and those pieces in even more little pieces. At one point this world is gonna disappear if we continue like that. So my message is about humanity, we have to be connected. It’s the only way to keep this world alive.’

How do you move this idea to the stage?

‘Jazz is freedom, so I try to create freedom and get people jumping and dancing and express themselves. I try to help people who hesitate to be free.’

 

The first time watching the video of La Rumba Me Llamo Yo it brought me tears of joy. How did this clip came about?

‘I’m part of Havana Cultura, a platform that supports different young artists in my country. When my album Cubafonía came out, they asked me to help making something pretty Cuban but not focusing on clichés like old cars and people smoking cigars. We wanted to show daily things you get when you live the local life. It was pretty easy: they found a young London girl and they left her in Cuba to open her eyes, look around to discover and film little details. She cought the current Cuban vibe as I see it: kids dancing on the porch, people getting cut at the hairdresser, a party on a rooftop. My whole family is at the party and I’m just talking about my moms side of the family. Together with my dad we are easily with seventy people.’

Would you like to tell something about another song on your album?

‘That would be ‘Negra Caridad’. That song came up in my dream. I woke up in the middle of the night and took my phone to record the melody. Sometimes I feel somebody is singing a song in my ear which is not my creation, like it’s a present.
When I got up the next day I was listening to it and I thought: fuck, this is beautiful! A lot of people get a western movie vibe when listening to it. It’s a tribute to Caridad, The Lady Of Charity, also known as the virgin Mary of Cuba.’

“I feel Japanese people

live beyond rules,

they have a clean energy.”

What were your best moments of 2017?

‘For me there are multiple: every reaction of the crowd in every venue I played. At each show the venue and the crowd is different and I don’t know what’s gonna happen when I start singing. Sometimes 15 minutes before the show the dance floor is still completely empty. Then I feel like a teenager back in the days when I was starting my career in bars in Cuba.’

Does it always turns out right?

‘Yes, it’s crazy. For instance, my show at Glastonbury last year. It’s an unbelievably big festival. It can take 30 minutes to walk from one stage to another. When you are not famous and performing on a little stage, you can perfectly be singing for one person. At the beginning of our concert people were only moving and passing to get to the big concerts, like Solange. At the end, the stage was packed with 200 people dancing like crazy. The idea that people stop running, forget where they were going and stick to your show really made me stronger. I felt nothing can really go wrong in my life.’

Which part of the world you love to hang out the most when you are not performing?

‘Three years ago I played in Japan. We did a show in Tokyo on International Jazz Day (april 30th) with the big band of Blue Note. Japan is my favorite place in the world. I really love the food and the people are very respectful. When something in the world is going wrong we try to make rules to make it right. But rules don’t change the mind of people. If you for example feel racist, no rule can change that feeling. I feel Japanese people live beyond rules, they have a clean energy. The streets can be packed but nobody is touching each other. Even when they live in their own world and there is a language barrier, they are very willing to help. I never felt more comfortable abroad than in Japan. And the crowd is the best ever. They bring you gifts after the gig, it’s beautiful, I love it.’

 

How is your focus on lyrics when making music?

‘I can express myself better through music than through lyrics. As a listener I sometimes don’t exactly know what a band is singing but the music they play remains. To be honest, lyrics are not my thing. It’s not how I feel music. First comes the melody, harmony and rhythm running though my body. There are musicians that are having great lyrics. Lyrics is what make them big. That’s not the case with me. I’m not a poet, I’m not Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan.’

If you would not be a musician, what would you be doing right now?

I’m pretty sure I would still be creating things. I also love to cook, preferably without a book. I have my own recipe to make Japanese mojito’s.

There is an old map next to us of the Noord-Brabant province. I see logos of a cigar, pig and a cow, things of Dutch trade.

Is this the area of Eindhoven? Feels like we’re in Cuba! The national animal in our country is a pig. They made a song about it called Mamifero Nacional.

You’ve played at So What’s Next? festival, so the logical last question would be: what’s next for you?

‘My boyfriend is really into hiphop. Actually, he has the word tattooed on his leg. Thanks to him I got into the mood to listen to new hiphop artists. I first discovered Kendrick Lamar and his combinations with jazz. It felt like next level hiphop. The same with Anderson .Paak. I went to see his concert with Gilles Peterson. Gilles is my mentor and made me sign to his record label Brownswood Recordings in 2015. .Paak is one of a generation of new musicians that are creating hiphop in a different way. They are also worried about what’s the sound of the music. The first song from .Paak that got me so impressed is ‘Heart Don’t Stand A Chance’. After listening to the first chords, “Ooh, champagne, foreign dime”, and the groove set in, I was like, what! Really outstanding.’