Cuba’s Daymé Arocena Takes us to Church on “The Havana Cultura Sessions” EP

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One of the latest surprises we received in our inbox was a beautiful dub-inflected Yoruba prayer called “Madres,” signed by a young and talented Cuban artist called Daymé Arocena. Gilles Peterson himself added Arocena to his Havana Cultura Mix project, where she had the chance to collaborate with producers from around the world, and also signed her to his Brownswood Recordings imprint. This alone is very impressive, but let’s talk music now.

Her debut release is The Havana Cultura Sessions, a four-track EP she recorded between London and Havana which is the perfect snapshot of what Arocena is all about. And she’s all about soul. A graduate of Cuba’s music education system and lifelong dedication to her craft is displayed in the EP’s high level of musicianship. But all of that would feel empty if it wasn’t for the soul and emotion she prints on her music, pouring out of her smoky, sweet voice and clever lyrics.

The EP is only four songs long, but it’s so diverse it feels like a journey. Right off the bat she demonstrates her affinity for jazz sounds on “Drama,” where she starts gently on the first couple of bars, only to swell into a stronger voice over a 5/4 time signature and Latin jazzy instrumentation. Jazz also runs through the slow jam “Sin Empezar,” but it leans more towards neo-soul, sitting between Ella Fitzgerald and Jill Scott.

Part of Arocena’s special something is that she finds space in her music for humor, perfectly exemplified on “El Ruso.” It’s an old-school Cuban salsa song where she sings about her mother learning Russian back in the 70s, but not really remembering it anymore. “Yo te digo sin disgusto/no me escribas más en ruso/que eso no se estudia ya en la escuela,” she sings her in a funny manner. “Tú de ruso no sabes ná.”

A little humor also slips into her rendition of the popular American torch song “Cry Me a River,” where her Afro-Cuban roots and influences are found in full effect. Singing the bittersweet lyrics over a rumba rhythm only, she lets out an honest laugh before singing “I remember all that you say.” The male companion says “ay Dios mío, ahora sí/la negra se puso brava,” and Arocena explodes into full-on vocal fireworks.

This EP does a great job exposing younger audiences to Cuban roots music, but does a better job of introducing all of us to Daymé Arocena’s world.