HAVANA TIMES — Legendary singer Elis Regina once said: “The only real singers in Brazil are Gal Costa and me.” Paraphrasing the diva, I could say that, in today’s Cuba, the only real singer is Dayme Arocena.
Three things define Dayme, in my opinion: her frank and sincere laugh, her peculiar modesty and her singular voice. At the young age of 24, she has been described as a revelation for contemporary Cuban jazz. “She’s phenomenal,” said English producer Gilles Peterson, of the Havana Cultura project, after hearing her perform. Reviews of her shows across Europe also underscore the powerful and exceptional way in which she sings to Yemaya and Ochun, deities of the Afro-Cuban pantheon.
“I have the fortune of having talent and of knowing how to make use of it. I know people who are very talented, more than I am, who don’t know how to make use of their talent. I am also fortunate because life has led me to take the right steps. Life has been generous with me, giving me the opportunities I’ve needed to make my way up professionally and personally. And, girl, you know, it’s also because I love it,” she said to me, laughing, while in her apartment.
I’d heard comments about Dayme Arocena here and there. Friends and acquaintances who love jazz as much as I do hadn’t heard her and would ask me for videos or albums to get a sense of her music. The “lucky black woman,” born in Diez de Octubre, daughter of Yemaya, bears the same cross other talented musicians have had to carry on the island: that of not being a prophet in her own land. After Internet conversations and between concerts in Canada and England, I was able to meet with her in Havana and enjoy an afternoon next to her, feeling as though part of her circle of friends. Between laughs and mango juice, she spoke to me of her experiences in the course of her surprisingly meteoric rise in the music world.
Ruben Blades said it: life brings surprises and these surprises bring you life. Listening to Dayme during a formidable concert held at Havana’s Trianon Theater, where she presented her new album Nueva Era (“New Era”), produced by the label Brownswood Recordings (I barely managed to get my ticket) left me with no doubts that the “lucky black woman” is pure gold.
How do you reconcile the success you’ve had internationally with your young age? Is it a challenge for you as an artist?
Dayme Arocena: I don’t think I’m fully conscious of the great or little success I’ve had or could have. I say this because I took a rather sudden leap. I was singing practically for art’s sake, at the La zorra y el cuervo jazz club, for five Cuban Convertible Pesos, next to my friends. I won’t say I didn’t dream of having an international music career, but I never thought it would come so soon and so suddenly. It all came in the blink of an eye, thanks to a chain of events, one behind the other.
I recall that, during my first tour, I would ask myself: “will people come to my concerts?” At Café Jade, where I sang, the day there were 10 people in the audience was a good day. So, finding myself in London, Paris, Belgium and Spain, I would think: they’re announcing a concert of mine, will anyone come? Not even people in my own country know me. I would get to the venue and see a full house, and one doesn’t quite get how things work. Is this real or am I dreaming it? That’s why I said that, as for any awareness about my
place as an artist, about what’s going on in my life internationally, about my success, I honestly don’t have it.
You mentioned people in Cuba don’t know your work. Why do you think that is? You’re not a prophet in your own land…
DA: No, maybe I will be one day. I think there are people in the world who have to shine abroad to understand what this world is about. When you work in a very closed circuit, people don’t understand what you’re conveying to them. It’s like the great composers: many were recognized after their death, because people didn’t understand their work during in their day. I am not comparing myself to them, not at all. Perhaps Cuba isn’t ready to understand the music I do fully, perhaps it will be in a few years’ time…
I believe there are two reasons my work isn’t known in Cuba: the first is that one doesn’t enjoy what one doesn’t understand. This is undeniable. Then there’s the personal side to things: you either like it or not. I think jazz isn’t as publicized as it could be, and I am speaking of the basic cultural understanding people have of music, whether people know what they’re hearing, musically, in much the same way one knows one is hearing pop, reggaeton and timba.
Is jazz elitist, in your opinion?
DA: That’s a highly misguided concept. Jazz is freedom of expression. To improvise is to open up your soul. It comes out of the heart, passes through your mind, makes it to your lips and you let go of it. It’s an expression of what you are experiencing, what you are feeling at that moment, and that’s not elitist. The person in the audience feels it, experiences it next to you. We are connected, musically, and this connection is human.
Did you have a role model or someone who guided you as a singer?
DA: When I was a child, my grandmother used to say she was going to hold a seance to invoke Selena, that was back when Selena used to be played a lot, but it passed. I had another stage when I liked Whitney Houston and I would make up my own brand of English, can you imagine? I study many singers, from everywhere: England, the United States, Brazil and, of course, Cuba. I wish to one day be able to join the ranks of the singers I admire and consider guides, and to do this remaining true to myself.
The great musicians went down in history because they were true to themselves. There’s a very personal seal you bring that you have to fight to keep tooth and nail, because it sets you apart in the world and makes people who listen to you, no matter where you are, say: “That’s Dayme.”
I want to study a lot to improve my own profile, the person I am. You have to hold on to your personality, accept the world and everything around you, transform your small diamond into a mine, knowing that your heart is your diamond.
Spanish musician Paco de Lucia once said during an interview: “You don’t pursue a career in music for money or fame.” Why do you do it?
DA: Sincerely, because I don’t know how to do anything else. There’s no Dayme without music. If I enter a silent house, I become very sad. The house can be dark, but not silent. I have to feel sounds all the time. I dream of music.
My mom says that, when I was small and hadn’t learned to talk yet, I would sit in front of the TV to try and sing along to the music. I don’t understand myself without music – it’s what saves me from depression, from difficult situations and problems. I can’t imagine myself doing something else. The only thing that makes me sad is going hoarse, the light goes out in my face.
How do you see the situation of women in Cuban jazz?
DA: I think the situation has always been the same, it’s hard to put up with it! They make it real difficult for us: there are no options, no venues, no information. First, they have to be “tough,” so that they’ll say: “they perform like men.” If they’re singers, they have to be “tough” so that someone will say: “she’s a musician.” To be tough also means having no responsibilities, such as a son, a family, because, I can get by on vegetable soup, but not my kid.
For women, particularly singers, deciding to sing salsa, pop or timba is the easy road. It’s a question of getting by, one has to eat. A jazz singer can do other genres, unlike those who specialize in traditional Cuban music, for whom it’s harder.
There’s quite a number of us out there, there’s plenty of women with talent, but, you have to be brave to go into the lion’s den. I think I did because my mom and dad support me a lot. I didn’t have to think what I was going to eat today or cook tomorrow, or how I was going to buy the soap to bathe with. That’s why I’m a lucky black woman. The people I’ve known, who are struggling in this world, have the support of their family, of people who have faith in them, but, if you only have your love of music, how do you get by?
I’ll give you some unfinished phrases for you to complete them with the first thing that comes to mind. “My motives for singing are…”
When you look back on your beginnings and see yourself now, you think…
DA: I have to continue studying.
When you think having devoted yourself to singing was a good decision or you think something made everything worthwhile, this something is…
DA: When people ask me for another song.
The Trianon Theater was too small and I can only say, in good Cuban, “everyone dropped over” listening to Dayme Arocena.