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From Havana to LA: A new musical connection

Singer Daymé Arocena with the Santería altar in her Havana apartment,
Singer Daymé Arocena with the Santería altar in her Havana apartment,
Betto Arcos
Singer Daymé Arocena with the Santería altar in her Havana apartment,
The cover of Daymé Arocena's new album, "Cubafonía."

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Cuban music has long had a strong connection to the United States, and that includes the days when jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie favored the sounds from the Caribbean island nation. And then the “Buena Vista Social Club” movie and soundtrack provided a huge boost to the Cuban music scene in the late 1990s.

Today’s generation of Cuban artists is carving a new path. Singer Daymé Arocena is one of those artists. Her new album is called “Cubafonía.” Arocena says the title carries a special meaning: “'Cubafonía' is the journey of the paradise that is Cuban music.”

Arocena lives a few blocks from Plaza de la Revolución. As she talks, the sound of the neighborhood comes in thru the open windows of her fifth floor apartment: “I’m just trying to bring alive again those rhythms, that music that made me dance, made me sing, when I was a kid, that gave me the pushing to make music, to write music.”

This is Arocena’s second album for renowned DJ/producer Gilles Peterson’s London-based label. In 2014, Peterson invited Arocena to take part in his Havana Cultura Mix Project. Then came a record deal and her first album, “Nueva Era,” released in 2015.

Arocena, who is 25-years-old, says that album was her opening to the world. But now that people know her name: “The next step is to take them into your heart, into your spirits, you have to show them who you are, more than just a name, more than just this person that Gilles Peterson met one day and decided to help. You have to show them, where are you coming from. What is the music that is into your roots, is in your blood.”

“Cubafonía” is a travelogue of Afro-Cuban music. The album opens with a song dedicated to the Santería spirit called “Eleggua” who represents the beginning and the end. Arocena is a practitioner of the Santeria religion.

Another song on the album is called “La Rumba Me Llamo Yo” — My Name is Rumba. It’s inspired by a dream where Santería priests read shells and stones to tell Arocena about her life and her future.

While Arocena's album is steeped in Cuba, there's also an L.A. connection. Los Angeles-based Dexter Story was the album's producer. He’s collaborated with saxophonist Kamasi Washington and Marie Daulne of Zap Mamá, among many others. Peterson recommended him to Arocena. Story says he was impressed by Arocena after listening to the album demos:

“I was blown away by the progressiveness of the music. I’ve heard a lot of Cuban music. I thought she was actually taking it in a fresh direction. I was just amazed by her well-roundedness. She’s a great singer. In fact she was raised as a choir director. In Cuba, they actually train you on different instruments. She’s an accomplished pianist. On top of that she can arrange horns and strings. I was blown away by her talent."

Arocena has been to Los Angeles three times. The last time was to record her voice tracks for the new album. She’s found L.A. has a certain affinity with Cuba:

"I have to say that L.A. is my favorite city in the U.S. L.A. is more chill and you can see the mountains in the background, so I feel it closer to Cuba, and they have the beach. It’s different. It’s deeper, I think.

Arocena says this album has another purpose: to help people understand what Cuban music is and is not: “When people think Cuban music is just Buena Vista Social Club, when people don’t know that rumba is the beginning of all the rhythms of Cuba, all of that makes me really angry, makes me sad.”

Daymé Arocena’s “Cubafonía” all adds up to a musical statement from a young singer living in the 21st Century, supported by deep roots that have helped her find her own.

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