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Discover Cuba Through 'Cubafonía'

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Monday June 12, 2017

From WBUR (90.9): The ARTery

Daymé Arocena Wants The World To Know That Cuban Music Is More Than ‘Cha-Cha-Chá’
By: Amelia Mason

The Cuban singer and bandleader Daymé Arocena is best known for her massive voice, a throaty bellow that has invited comparisons to Aretha Franklin and Celia Cruz, the queen divas themselves. But Arocena’s latest release, “Cubafonía,” is as much a testament to her omnivorous musicality. On the album’s opener, a syncopated and liquidly mutating track titled “Eleggua,” her voice is almost an afterthought, at various points subsumed into a strident choir and overshadowed by a lone soprano that rises, crystalline, out of the tumult. But the song’s deft inventiveness, its confident multitudinousness, leaves no doubt as to the architect.

I reached Arocena on a recent Saturday morning at her home in Havana while she was eating breakfast. The musician — who performs at the ICA on Friday, June 16 — lives in the downtown Havana neighborhood of Plaza de la Revolución. It’s a lot nicer, she says, than Diez de Octubre, the district where she grew up, which she describes as “a big neighborhood of quite poor people” — though she quickly qualifies the statement. “Not ‘poor,’ because in Cuba, everyone is poor.”

Still, Arocena misses her old haunts. There, “every single door is open, people are in the street, everyone is talking to each other, everyone is helping each other,” she says. “Here, you feel alone. You feel like you are living in another country.”

And Arocena would know. At 25, she is a consummate cosmopolitan, having toured internationally since her late teens. A turn on the Juno Award-winning album “Maqueque,” a project from the Canadian saxophone master Jane Bunnett, gave the young singer’s profile a bump. But her breakout came in 2014 when she was featured on producer Gilles Peterson’s “Havana Cultura Mix: The Soundclash,” an album that featured an assortment of Cuban musicians mashed up with a hip hodgepodge of internationally-sourced producers. Arocena sang on three tracks, her voice brash and slickly produced. Her debut album “Nueva Era” was arguably more to her taste. It nodded to jazz, Cuban popular music and Santería, the sacred music of her faith — an Afro-Cuban religion whose many saints inform the lyrical and spiritual energies of Arocena’s music. (“Eleggua” is a reference to the Santería god of roads.) “Nueva Era” earned a place on NPR Music’s 50 Favorite Albums of 2015…

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