Daymé Arocena Gives Afro-Cuban Soul and Jazz a Fresh Update With “Nueva Era”

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Cuban singer/songwriter Daymé Arocena‘s Havana Cultura Sessions EP, released back in March, was a breath of fresh air. With only four songs, it’s an EP that’s rooted in jazz –Arocena is a graduate of Cuba’s music education system – but the music is as diverse as it gets, and it gave us a tantalizing glimpse of what 22 year-old Arocena is capable of delivering: a soulful sound that bridges Afro-Cuban and US jazz music traditions.

Now, with the release of Nueva Era, Arocena’s very first full-length album, her raw talent is more evident than ever. Three of the four songs included on Havana Cultura Sessions made the album, giving listeners the chance to revisit the jazzy polyrhythm of “Drama,” the slow-tempo neo-soul bliss of “Sin Empezar,” and the deliciously funny Cuban salsa track “El Ruso.” Also included is the previously-shared single “Madres,” the Simbad-produced dub-referencing track that’s a tribute to the two Yoruba mothers, Yemaya and Ochun, and is sung almost entirely in Yoruba.

So, what’s new on this album, then? Well, there are six new tracks in here, and the main element on all of them is Arocena’s voice. She shines as an arranger, composer, and choir director, but her most noticeable attribute on first listen is still her big, smoky voice and its range, which can go from a sweet and lovely croon, to a powerful, carefree shout. “Crystal” is proof of this. Marrying the complexities of jazz composition with flavorful Latin percussion, she delicately sings “I believe that you know that I always see you/’Cause you make me feel like into the sea” at the beginning, and the intensity grows throughout the song, only to drop into a freestyle scat moment.

Don’t Unplug My Body” starts off with an African-inspired beat that’s almost samba-like, and it’s probably Arocena’s poppiest moment on the whole album, even though the track is five-minute long. Of course, it has a lengthy improvised piano solo right in the middle, but that chorus, where she repeats the song’s name over and over, is where the money is. The album’s prettiest moment comes on a track called “Niño,” which is an endearing lullaby that is both musically interesting, complete with a little beatboxing, and just so heart-wrenching.

Arocena jumps back and forth between Spanish and English, and it never sounds forced. One example is the ballad “Come to Me,” where she’s accompanied only by a piano, and channels old-school jazz divas. The layering of her own voice on album closer “Nueva Era” showcases her experience as a choir director, creating rich vocal harmonies that are pretty much the heart of this minimalist song.

Part of the beauty of this album is the success Arocena and her team had in reinventing a bunch of sounds and genres that aren’t necessarily thought of as current, turning them into something thrilling and new. The rest is just pure, raw talent.