Havana’s streets are flooded with tourists. In December, The New York Times reported that the influx of foreigners is putting pressure on the internal, state-run economy, making it difficult for Cubans to access food. Now locals must compete with hundreds of private restaurants with sky-high prices. It’s a disappointing moment in the history of a country that has risked so much in the attempt to exist outside of an unequal economic system. In the first half of 2016 alone, tourism from the United States increased 84 percent more than the same period in 2015. The surge in tourism presents a frustrating conundrum — travelers from the United States continue an unsustainable cycle in which they consume without true recognition of what it is they’re taking.
But there’s a long history of this kind of consumption of Cuban culture. It’s a country whose culture has been exported globally while the island’s creators haven’t been celebrated nearly as much. There’s a history of outsiders coming to the island, transporting and profiting off of its music, film, and art, without little benefit to originators.
Daymé Arocena might help us change the cycle with her newest album Cubafonía. With new, rapidly changing diplomatic relations, Arocena is one of the island’s most promising voices. Since meeting her labelhead and mentor Gilles Peterson in 2012, she has been able to craft her impressionable voice into a wide range of genre-breaking tracks, following a strong legacy of Cuban musicianship which fuses jazz with folkloric music and adding in the contemporary R&B and pop influences she grew up with. In 2014, she released Havana Cultura Mix, which was followed by her debut album Nueva Era in 2015. Since then, she has embarked on a world tour, performing, learning, and recording in the world outside of her island.
Last summer, right after a showcase at SXSW and her three-night NYC debut, Arocena dropped One Takes, an EP that brought together her signature blend of jazz, funk, and Latin rhythms. That was just the beginning — as she continued to travel, she was rediscovering her identity as an artist and a Cuban. Over email while on one leg of her tour in Latin America, she tells me that her journey around the world has made her recognize what it means to be Cuban. “We are a mix of flavors, a wide range of colors that defines us not only in this scene, but in life. I am, like everyone here, a fighter that overcomes the day-to-day of my country. The difficulties gives us nobility, humility, and strength.” As she continued to travel and record, the nostalgia for her home grew and transformed into her sophomore album Cubafonía, her most polished work to date.
“I am not afraid of life because in my country we learn how to be born.”
For Arocena, Cubafonía is “the journey back to the root”— an homage to Cuban music, recognizing it for what it is. The 11-track project tells a history of Cuban music, traveling through cha-cha-chá, changüí, mambo, tango-congo, rumba, guajira to Cuban pop and bolero, all with her bold voice front and center. The decision to dip into different authentically Cuban styles was intentional and critical to her mission. In her travels, Arocena realized that through decades of political conflict, people have lost track of the culture that comes from the island. “It hurts me so much that many people in the world have no idea that these rhythms are Cuban and they are attributed to other regions of Latin America.”
Much like her previous projects, Cubafonía boasts Arocena’s bold voice and musical dexterity, but this album is unique in its understanding and demonstrations of the rich trove Cuba has to offer. Her mission this time around is simple: “If God made me lucky and blessed me enough to sing to the world without having to leave my home, then they will learn what Cubans are made of.” Singing in Spanish, English, and French, with references to regla de osha — the Yoruba-rooted religion also known as santería — and her 10 de Octubre neighborhood, the project takes a broad approach to capturing the island’s musical identity, with each track serving a distinct exploratory purpose. On “La Rumba Me Llamo Yo,” she flexes her scatting, and reveals a delightfully joyous voice on the upbeat changüí “Valentine.” On other tracks, like “Como” and “Todo Por Amor,” she slows down for velvety ballads.
Throughout the album, polyrhythmic percussion, syncopated intricacies, and the dynamism of her voice remain consistent, but there’s something else powerful too. Arocena’s connection to the music she makes is profound and inherently a part of her upbringing and identity. When I ask her about the references to santería throughout her work, she tells me it’s more than an inspiration. “Osha is in my body, mind, and spirit, and music as an act of consecration is undoubtedly a part of that.” She lists Kendrick Lamar and Anderson .Paak as two artists she would love to work with, and explains that jazz, for her, is the bridge that connects her entire musical universe. “For me, jazz is liberty and liberty is eternal. The future is uncertain, but improvisation is a daily exercise of the human brain.”
“For me, jazz is liberty and liberty is eternal.”
When Arocena talked to Remezcla about her EP last May, she was excited to be part of Cuba’s rapid transformation. Since then, a lot has shifted for our two countries; Fidel Castro died, the wet foot-dry foot policy has been lifted, and more tourists have been a part of this pivotal and uncertain moment in history. Regardless of the perceived chaos, Arocena understands that we achieve liberation through music, and if we open up to artists with less visibility and access to exposure, we can learn a bit about ourselves and our world. “Like I’ve said many times, Cuban music just waits for industrialization and worldwide recognition, which for so many years has been tarnished by that old thing we call politics!”
Our first lesson could be in educating ourselves about the Cuba Arocena knows and loves. During this fluid political moment, Arocena is reflecting rust like all of us. When I ask her to articulate what it means to be Cuban today, she writes, “I am not afraid of life because in my country we learn how to be born.”
Daymé Arocena’s Cubafonía is out now on Brownswood Recordings.