It’s not often that a 24-year-old garners international acclaim and musical comparisons to musical giants Nina Simone and Celia Cruz, but Cuban-born Dayme Arocena is no ordinary artist.
Raised in Havana, she was hailed a musical prodigy, becoming a trained composer, arranger, choir director, and band leader, in addition to singing. At eight, she began performing semi-professionally; six years later, she became the lead singer of Los Primos. Her charming demeanor has captivated audiences worldwide, particularly with Grettel Jimenez Singer of Paper, in a fascinating interview piece.
The Cuban songstress is an avid practitioner of Santería, an Afro-Caribbean religion based on Yoruba beliefs, frequently dressing in a turban, complimented by an all white ensemble, symbolizing the faith. “”Madres”, the first song in the Nueva Era album is meant to be a prayer for my two spiritual mothers, Oshún and Yemayá, who are also mothers to the rivers and the seas. It’s essentially about mothers and daughters in the world and the strength we need from each other.”
She credits the faith for helping her to deliver an otherworldly performance onstage: “My head is definitely Yemayá, practical, yet nourishing and forgiving, but very protective of those I love. My body however is one hundred percent Oshún. She is the orisha of love, beauty, femininity, and sensuality. Her body is voluptuous and it carries joy just like mine. I wasn’t always fond of my body.” With the practice of Santería came a blossoming of confidence. “I wasn’t always fond of my body. I used to be ashamed of how I looked, how short I am, about my skin color. As a result, my spirit was crushed and my presence on stage was tarnished by my own judgment. That’s in the past now. I have mastered the art of not just loving but adoring myself. As women, we must understand who we are and what we’re made of, accept what nature has given us, and be comfortable with our sexuality. Nobody can resist that,” says Arocena.
It’s this connection with potent spiritual forces that enables Arocena to improvise musically, to blend genres if so inclined, despite preferring jazz music in her free time. “My music is frank,” she says. “That’s one way I can describe it, and that means anything can happen. When la musa shows up, I welcome her and take whatever she’s offering: pop, jazz, Afro-Cuban chants, filin… I take it all and give it my all.”
Arocena’s musical improvisation is also indicative of the new sonic sound emanating from her home country, evident in her debut album Nueva Era, which was released in 2015. “What she is doing is drawing on all this contemporary music that’s happening in Cuba. A mixture of salsa, a mixture of jazz, a mixture of hip-hop, neo-soul—that nice little combination,” notes NPR music podcast host, Felix Contreras. “And then adding elements of Afro-Cuban rumba with music, with vocals, with dancing styles—all of that, and put in this really wonderful package.”
Jazz, according to Arocena, provides a center for musical interpretation and improvisation. “If you mix jazz with everything, it always works—that’s why I love it. It gives me all the opportunity to create as I feel it. I always try to be honest with myself. I always try to create as I feel it, even knowing that new song is always going to have that jazzy taste inside,” she told Miami New Times.
The songbird’s presence is striking, a walking visual of the magic of Afro-Cuban culture. “Cuba is a talented country, full of talented people with bright ideas. Cubans are innovators by nature, but we have been secluded and isolated from the rest of the world for many decades,” explains Arocena. “There’s also something beautiful about that, in the sense that it has made us a remarkably pure culture. But this is a different era, and the time has arrived for Cubans to learn how the rest of the world works.”
“We are like magicians. We have made cars work for 50 years out of nothing at all,” she continues, speaking about her beloved island. “We reinvent life every single day in order to eat and to withstand the quotidian struggles, which aren’t few, and we do it with a smile because above all, we celebrate life to the fullest. So what do I want from this new change happening right now? I want freedom, information, and visibility. I want to be able to exchange ideas with the rest of the world, nourish mentally and emotionally from other cultures and vice versa.”