Daymé Arocena

Dayme Arocena displays a rare combination of youthful energy and very adult composure. She has an easy laugh and irradiates warmth, yet the power of her voice and the articulateness of her speech would make you think that she’s much older than twenty-two.  

A native of Havana’s Diez de Octubre neighborhood, Dayme underlines the weight of her upbringing in the musician that she is today: “Diez de Octubre has an important Afro-Cuban influence. I was born and lived there all my life, so I have a strong base of the [Afro-Cuban] religion— the chants, the rituals and the celebrations.” 

And, as it is often the case in Cuba, music was also a family affair: “When there was a celebration, my mom and my grandmother would sing and my uncles would play tumbadoras—or if there wasn’t one around they would just find a bucket and a stick and throw a great party.” As a child, Dayme was drawn to North American music: “I loved Whitney Houston—she was my idol!” On a very different note, her grandmother had her memorizing boleros from the 1960s and her dad, a huge fan of Louie Bellson, insisted that she discover jazz.  

Dayme graduated from the music education system as a choir director. She began singing with Los Primos Big Band, mentored by Joaquín Betancourt, and deepened her connection with jazz: “The first standard that they gave me was My Funny Valentine. It was just handwritten on a sheet of paper and it was the first time I tried something like that. Generally, singers learn songs by listening to other singers. When you don’t know how to grasp the song, you have to sit down and analyze what the lyrics and the music say, how the musicians are accompanying you, and suddenly you’re singing jazz with an interpretation that is your own.”

A few years back, Dayme formed an all-girl jazz band called Alami. “Since I began doing jazz, I noticed that I was always the only girl in the group. So I told myself, ‘What’s up with the women?’ It’s not really feminism; it’s about balancing things out.” Three years ago, Alami was in the middle of a performance at Havana’s Jazz Plaza festival when a mysterious spectator armed with a baritone saxophone yelled, “Long live women!” before joining them for an improv session.  As it turned out, Alami had unknowingly shared the stage with Jane Bunnett, a Canadian jazz artist that had been working with Cuban musicians, some of which were related to Dayme, for decades. They stayed in touch and Dayme was eventually invited to play in Canada. An album entitled Maqueque resulted from the collaboration between Jane Bunnet, Dayme and other female jazz musicians from Cuba. 

In May 2014, a group of emerging electronic artists traveled to Havana with BBC radio host and globetrotter Gilles Peterson to produce original tracks with Cuban musicians for a new album in the Havana Cultura series. To acquaint them with the voices that they could work with, the producers attended an open mic at the iconic Bertolt Brecht concert space. A few acts into the evenings, a barefoot, white-clad Dayme took the stage and stole the show. “She’s a total knock-out,” says Gilles Peterson. “She could have done that performance on any radio station or TV show in the world!”

Not only did she record four tracks with producers from Russia, Chile, South Africa and Switzerland, but she was invited to London to perform at the Havana Cultura Mix: The Soundclash album launch. While she was in town, she also recorded a solo album with Peterson’s label, Brownswood, with an expected release date in early 2015. 

“I have a very strong voice, to put it simply.  But when I sing, I also want people to appreciate the beauty of nuance and subtlety. I think when I combine both strength and intelligence is when I achieve my style as a soloist,” reflects Dayme before breaking into a chant invoking Yemaya, the Yoruba deity of the sea.