On Monday, President Obama made a historic trip to Cuba, tweeting “¿Que bolá Cuba?” as he touched down in Havana, breaking decades of diplomatic silence and initiating a long overdue process of renewing ties with the island. Later that day in New York City, another kind of cultural exchange was taking place, as people crowded into a dimly lit Meatpacking District club called Subrosa, just to watch Daymé Arocena further solidify herself as a leading Cuban artist.
As Arocena sang, danced, joked, and told stories onstage, she opened up her own voice to U.S.-based audiences, who have been relatively isolated from Cuba’s music scene, since the musical community there has developed without much engagement from the United States since the mid-60s.
Her three-night New York City debut arrived right after her performance at SXSW, a festival that carries weight for many of us music lovers. But SXSW’s significance was not clear for Arocena when she first landed in Austin. “Honestly, I didn’t realize the importance of the festival. I knew it was an important platform, but I didn’t know how important the event would be.” The shock of performing in the midst of so many other talented artists transformed into inspirational sets in Austin and New York City, and now she continues on her debut U.S. tour with shows in Philadelphia, Oakland, and Los Angeles.
As she prepares for the next leg of her tour, we sat down to talk to Daymé Arocena about her thoughts on U.S.-Cuba relations, her sources of inspiration, and her new One Takes EP, which is set to drop in May 2016.
On Selena as a source of inspiration
When I ask Arocena about her earliest music-related memory, she laughs as she remembers a singing contest she participated in when she was five years old. “My parents always say that that’s when they first realized I could sing.”
The winner of the competition was promised a prize, so Arocena climbed onto the stage to perform Selena’s “No Me Queda Más,” and gushed when she won. She was awarded balloons and a teddy bear.
“Selena and Whitney Houston were both people who illuminated me as a child. They were singers I looked up to a lot. My parents knew because when I got to the house I’d play cassettes from either Selena or Whitney Houston. I’d be there all day playing their songs!”
Later, when Arocena would study more music and music history, she would develop her interests and inspirations, digging deeper into singers whom she emulates in her own noisy jazz style, like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and of course, La Lupe.
“Selena and Whitney Houston were both people who illuminated me as a child.”
On her performance style
Although it’s hard to believe now watching the singer whose stage presence is a performance in itself and whose voice fills rooms unapologetically, Arocena tells me she wasn’t always like this.
“I used to be a really shy girl. I loved to sing but I was embarrassed to go onstage. I was always fat and I always thought everyone was going to laugh at me. That was my feeling.”
She credits her participation in choruses to her affinity for audience engagement, but also recognizes the role of a few Cuban artists she looks up to. Arocena is a sponge – taking and remixing the strengths of her influences and using them in her own performance.
“One of them is one of my favorite Cuban singers, named Pancho Céspedes. He’s a guy who doesn’t have an amazing voice but he has a huge heart. This style comes from a singer named Bola de Nieve from many years ago. Pancho is influenced by Bola [in the sense that] before he sings a song or plays something, he’ll connect with the audience.”
Arocena continues this tradition during her own performances, talking and responding to the audience, asking them questions, telling them jokes, and asking them to sing with her. “I wanted to do that – make people connect with my songs, because I sing my songs. When I feel the audience enjoying what I’m doing, I can relax.”
On her One Takes EP
One Takes is appropriately named, stemming from the organic style in which it was produced. During the filming of La Clave, a documentary produced by Havana Cultura, they were allowed some studio time, in which Arocena and her group jammed “without any intention of anything – just having fun.”
After recording nine tracks, she was left with six that were so good, “we couldn’t leave them as throwaways,” thus spawning the idea to release a full EP. She says One Takes incorporates her go-to blend of jazz, funk, and Latin rhythms.
“What I wish for is more openness, information, and freedom of expression.”
On U.S.-Cuba relations
Although we are hearing a lot about the diplomatic shifts, it is still hard to know what the Cuban people expect and desire from the political and social changes that are bound to happen in the coming months. Arocena reminded me that she still lives in Cuba, and although she has the privilege to travel the world and let people hear her voice, she is just one of millions.
“What I wish for the most is more openness, information and freedom of expression, especially in music. Cuban musicians are 50 to 60 years behind, not because of creation, but because of visibility. Everyone is still into Buena Vista Social Club (who I love and respect), but so many things have happened in Cuba, so much creation. Cuba is a musical country. ”
With decades of isolation comes disadvantages in engaging in the international music industry, so although people know how create, they don’t know how to build a successful, modern international career. “So it’s 50/50. We need to be in the world and be part of the world, and we need for the world to pay attention to what’s happening in Cuba.”
Check out all of Daymé Arocena’s tour dates here, and be sure to listen to our latest Exclusivo playlist, curated by Daymé herself.