Performing since she was eight, music has played a major role in singer Daymé Arocena’s life for as long as she can remember.

Ask Daymé Arocena what she might have done with her life if she hadn’t taken up music and she’ll be stumped for an answer.

The Cuban singer, who made an international breakthrough with her first solo recording Nueva Era in 2015, has been singing, family legend has it, since before she could talk. She began formal music studies at the age of eight, going on to graduate from the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory.

It’s her grandmother, who she says is a better singer than she is, that she credits with giving her the most important singing lessons, however, and for passing on the soulfulness contained in the songs and chants of the Santeria religion, as well as a love for all the traditional Cuban rhythms including rumba and bolero.

“The feeling of these songs is still in my music today,” she says, ahead of her Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival appearance on July 16. “Even though I’m a classically-trained musician, I also studied Santeria because, for me, it’s the essential Cuban religion and has a beautiful energy.”

Music has been a natural part of life for Arocena from as far back as she can remember. Her parents are not musicians, but they were avid listeners, her mother to Cuban folk music and her father to jazz. At the frequent parties in their neighbourhood, everybody, it seemed, played some instrument or other, or found their own way of joining in.

Arocena became the principal singer with big band Los Primos at the age of 14. She had already sung semiprofessionally for six years by then, having been talent spotted at a party. It wasn’t long after she joined Los Primos that she began to come to the attention of internationally regarded musicians, including trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who was amazed by the depth of expression she conveyed.

The London-based DJ and radio presenter Gilles Peterson also heard the still-teenage Arocena sing during a trip to Cuba in the late noughties. He made a note to keep in touch with her career and in 2014 he sought her out for his Havana Cultura project, which involved singers recording with DJs from around the world. Arocena featured on three tracks and was invited to London for the album launch, following which Peterson signed her to his Brownwood label. Neuva Era, the first fruit of this deal, made waves well beyond Arocena’s expectations.

“I’ve hardly been back in Cuba since the album was released,” she says. “It’s funny because sometimes people say they expect to hear something more Cuban in my music. I’m not sure what they mean because I’m Cuban and my Cubanness feeds on all the influences that have been left by all those who have stayed on the island down the centuries. Cuba is known as the key to the Caribbean and many, many peoples have passed through it, so my music has influences and flavours from everywhere.”

Words: Rob Adams
Picture: Casey Moore

Daymé Arocena George Square, Spiegeltent, 16 July, 10pm

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