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Vanguard of Women in Cuban Jazz

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Friday January 25, 2019

From The New Yorker

A New Vanguard of Women in Cuban Jazz
By: Lauren Du Graf
Photography By: Rose Marie Cromwell

Plenty of Cuban women have made their marks on jazz music, from the Buena Vista Social Club’s Omara Portuondo and the salsa legend Celia Cruz to the Queen of the Bolero, Olga Guillot, who coached Nat King Cole on his Spanish. But, in past generations, Cuba’s jazzistas were predominantly singers; female instrumentalists were too often confined to all-female dance bands, like Anacaona and Canela, and squeezed into matching skintight ensembles.

[…] They’ve also had more female role models, such as the Canadian saxophonist and flutist Jane Bunnett. Since the early nineteen-eighties, Bunnett has made more than a hundred trips to Cuba, bringing instruments to the island and working to nurture musicians there. Daymé Arocena, a twenty-six-year-old jazz singer, is a founding member of Bunnett’s all-female Afro-Cuban sextet, Maqueque. Of the first time she met Bunnett, at Cuba’s Jazz Plaza Festival, Arocena has said, ‘A lady came out of nowhere with a soprano saxophone in her hand and shouted in the middle of the room, ‘Viva las Mujeres!’ ‘

[…] Daymé Arocena was nineteen when she first tried to form an all-female jazz group, applying for approval through the Cuban employment office. ‘We tried three times and couldn’t get it,’ she said. ‘Nobody believed in us.’

Now Arocena is one of the world’s fastest-rising jazz vocalists. She is petite with an improbably enormous voice, a rich alto that has made the news since she was a young girl. During a visit to Cuba, the former President of Venezuela Hugo Chávez heard her sing in a children’s choir. He looked at her in astonishment, and then began hugging and kissing her.

When she first arrived at Amadeo Roldán, Arocena said, she ‘didn’t know shit about jazz.’ A student-led big band, looking for a singer, gave her some sheet music to learn, and another student gave her a burned CD of standards. One song stood out in particular: Nina Simone’s ‘I Put a Spell On You.’ ‘I came to the rehearsal the next day and was, like, ‘There is a song, and I don’t know if it is a girl or a boy singing, but that is what I want to sing.’ ‘ Along with Simone, Arocena counts the legendary Cuban singer La Lupe as a major influence on her sound. Arocena’s father, a night-club manager, once worked at La Red, the basement club in Havana’s Vedado district where La Lupe’s career took off.

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