Dayme Arocena: “Singing was My Shield”

By Leyanes Yanes (El Toque)

Dayme Arocena

Photos by Claudio Pelaez Sordo

HAVANA TIMES – To describe Dayme Arocena, above all you have to listen to her carefully. And I would also say with freedom, because her career is a consequence of her free expression as a human being and as an artist. Free to experiment and break down barriers among musical genres and stereotypes going beyond the stave.

Dayme carries the good rushes of life, the ones whispering virtuous improvisations that then flee down her throat. The contemporary art scene in Cuba cannot do without this woman. First, for her music, which is brave like her. And then, for what it means to be a black, short and stuttering woman.

The clash of worlds

“Music has always been the bridge to all my stuff. I fell in love with the drum at 17 but I was crowned at 22. It took me five years to be a practitioner [of the Yoruba religion]. In fact, the coronation was what came last. I fell in love with the folk music before that.

“I met my husband singing. Music has always been the answer to all my stuff. Just as I fell in love with the drum, I was in love with choral music, which is what I studied. Then I started combining them.

“I loved to write music for choirs. When I discovered the batá drum, it was the clash between my two worlds. Afro-Cuban music and classical music. It is the space where these two things make sense and settle. Jazz brings together these two expressions that can be so different. That’s what my music means.”

Multiple musical collaborations, three albums, a female jazz band and a look at the world later. Dayme fuses nine years of classical choral music strict study with Cuban music. But the sounds of life, from her house “of the many” and the broken windows from so much clave playing are also heard. “That’s the sound of my land, of my blacks playing rumba.”

“I say I come from the house of the many because they sang and played rumba at every blackout. I was born in ’92, that is, the electricity rather came, it didn’t go off. That’s how I grew up. However, in my house there was no complaining. When the power went off, automatically: bambambam… bambam… LET’S GO. Yes, to sing.”

“And they sang and played with spoons, on the door, on the windows. Furniture was broken from playing so much. I’m all that and jazz, which is literally freedom of expression. I would be very inconsistent calling myself a jazz player and not being free to express myself.”

Multiple musical collaborations, three albums, a female jazz band and a look at the world later. Dayme fuses nine years of classical choral music strict study with Cuban music. But the sounds of life, from her house “of the many” and the broken windows from so much clave playing are also heard. “That’s the sound of my land, of my blacks playing rumba.”

I say I come from the house of the many because they sang and played rumba at every blackout. I was born in ’92, that is, the electricity rather came, it didn’t go off. That’s how I grew up. However, in my house there was no complaining. When the power went off, automatically: bambambam… bambam… LET’S GO. Yes, to sing.”

“And they sang and played with spoons, on the door, on the windows. Furniture was broken from playing so much. I’m all that and jazz, which is literally freedom of expression. I would be very inconsistent calling myself a jazz player and not being free to express myself.”

Precisely, her opinion on social networks has led her to what I call a resounding and sincere mini-biography. There she clarifies points of view, dialogues and stands. As she says: “Some time ago I decided not to shut up anymore… say what I feel, what affects me. And as a result of what happened on November 26th with the San Isidro Movement, I made a publication.”

She was talking about feelings and dialogue. She began by saying: “The Word of the Apostle belongs to everyone …”. The reactions were diverse and people spoke of her courage. She told me “it shouldn’t be considered a brave act to say the Apostle’s word belongs to everyone”.

The reactions to her statements made her feel defamed, insulted and supported at the same time: “I could not understand some comments based on such honest criteria, such healthy criteria. I said it because I felt it. I didn’t understand some of those reactions … If there was a real dialogue, we would reach the conclusion that everyone wants a better Cuba.”

But that’s how social media works. Dayme knows we are exposed. Even so, she came across rather old lies and kind of blackmailing: “I had to read a thousand times that hackneyed idea. ‘A poor and stuttering Cuban black woman would have never become an artist anywhere else in the world.’ I had to read it over and over again. And it told me: This is such a misinformed society!”.

For this reason, she calls herself arrogant when she does that. But she keeps on mentioning she has traveled to more than twenty countries. And she reaffirms: “Don’t come teach me. I have seen different societies with my own eyes. Stop saying I would not have accessed musical training in another country. That is denying the history of even world music. It is exclusive, it is unfair, it is racist. That thought is totally racist. Stop repeating that ugly thing. That’s why I made a post talking about who I am, about the house where I was born. I have spoken up front, with all the freedom that I carry in my soul”.

The feeling of dislike by your people

Being different is not a bed of roses. Building self-esteem by following stereotypes is already difficult. So if you don’t fit a mold, your life can be a real obstacle course.

“I can tell you I did not value myself, I did not love myself, I felt ugly. Those who know me know I am very short and chubby. I have the same weight and height since I was 12. My breasts were too big for my age. They had to be reduced, it was tremendous…”.

Probably the music, again, saved her: “I was a girl who would cross the street when saw a group of boys on the corner. I felt so ugly, so bad, that I was running away from people. I used to hide. I had a brutal fear. In fact, singing was my shield. People would see me differently and that’s how I broke barriers”.

Dayme still isn’t 30. However, she reviews her adolescence with distance and loneliness, evoking how her self-love lost the battle over and over again. “I had a boyfriend for seven years due to my lack of self-confidence. He wasn´t a bad boy, but I felt from long before I wanted to break with him.  At the same time, I said: who is going to have me in tow? Imagine!”

“It´s the truth. I say it with all sincerity, transparency and conviction of the importance to speak these things. There are many girls who feel as I did. Either because people did not or do not tell them about their life experiences. And also because mothers do not raise boys a little more consistent with what they feel. I knew someone who had feelings for me, but cared too much about what people thought to approach me. Going out with her? No way! I lived with all of that for nineteen years.”

At 20, she didn’t understand why people asked her to dance at a disco in Canada: “Is this real? are they making fun of me? My dad told me that I was living a late adolescence. The thing is I started to feel beautiful at that age”.

She was the exotic Cuban singer that everyone wanted to meet. “Everyone wanted to go out with the singer …”. But the most important thing of that time is not how others see her, but how she sees herself and loves herself. Dayme Arocena’s dislike feelings testimony could be that of many other girls in the world.

But the lack of affection would go beyond the romantic love. It wasn’t easy to enter the artistic company in Cuba. And without it she couldn’t perform with her group of friends. Together they founded Alami, one of the few female jazz groups in Cuba. They attended three auditions to join the company. Three times they were told “no” to the same group that soon afterwards would soon after become the Maqueque jazz collective.

“We started working thanks to a type of temporary authorization. It cost me a whole vacation crying the bloody document to be able to work. From there we started to make presentations and opportunities appeared for me outside of Cuba”. Then, as she says, Dayme began to battle it out around the world.

Why Alami and why women?

She fought to create the Alami group since she graduated. This name directly relates to Yemayá, Yoruba pantheon orisha (afro Cuban religion). It had been chosen by her grandma for a new coming granddaughter. But a boy was born instead so Dayme kept the name for her band.

“At that time I was not a Santeria priestess, but loved all this mythology. Alami referred to the stones at the bottom of the sea, making sounds, siren songs… I liked it so much!”.

By then, around 2012, there weren’t enough women in the jazz circuit inside and outside Cuba, especially instrumentalists. There still aren’t. Daymé wondered “why they were always men. Where are the female performers of this genre, what´s going on? And therefore, I decided to make a female jazz players group. The representation is not yet fair. Today I can talk about a movement that is a little better than before. But it is not equal”.

Sexist musical genre or self-censored women?

“It’s a bit of everything. I have a theory: women always try to be in safe territory. Men go through life with more freedom. And jazz, which part of its essence is improvisation, puts you in an uncertain territory. You go up the stage to play, open your heart and release what comes out. But you don’t know for sure what is going to happen. Improvisation in a general sense occurred more in men´s perception of life than in women’s”.

To reach improvisation maturity, Dayme says she had to break her personal barriers. She goes: “I don’t know how to do it well, but I’ll see what comes out. It’s achieved after trying many times. And that’s the beauty of jazz, that no concert is the same… You can do the same program a thousand times, but concerts will never be the same.”

From Alami to the jazz collective Maqueque and immediately afterwards to her first solo album Nueva Era. This is considered one of the best 50 albums of 2015, according to the US National Public Radio (NPR).. It was followed by One Takes (2016) and Cubafonía in 2017, an explosion of character. Cuba in the world and vice versa. Sonocardiogram is one of her most recent works, from 2019; according to her, the sincerest album made so far.

They are all musical productions of a tireless machinery of creativity. Dayme has learned with all of them the artist’s obligation to respect the other. The decency of not takimg what belongs to others:

To become more widely known, “Alami needed the collaboration of international figures for being islanders, third-world people, Cubans, isolated. I feel a globalized social injustice there, because Cuba has enough music to share with the world. However, if a person from another country doesn’t come to legitimize what you have been doing, nobody sees it”.

Woman, artist, Cuban, Yoruba, jazz player. One within the other. She cannot isolate herself from what she considers transcendental. This moment of active debates on gender equality motivates her. “I think it is a discussion in vogue. You have to know how to handle it well; you have to keep talking and fighting. I will always be on the side of just causes.”

“Of course, you have to fight and open more spaces for women. It is a time of great discussion and I hope it will bring great results. I am the same one who talks about San Isidro, or sings in Mexico in favor of abortion”.

Her saint is Yemaya Mayelewo: “she lives in the center of the sea. Not at the bottom, not on the banks. From there she looks at everything. From there she looks at the world and can distribute fairly. What I say, I have already looked at it and analyzed it. Nothing that I say in public is to follow any trend.”

Always barefoot

When she began to play and sing she was told: “Dress in black; put on high heels; you have to straighten your hair”.

“I remember going upstairs to sing and trembling with those shoes. I was more focused on that than on singing. High heels, Dayme? I suffered a lot. They scorched me with that. Until one day when I got pissed off, I took off my shoes and I was very happy. If I wore flat shoes the same, so I decided: now I will always sing barefoot. Now they are going to have to put up with me.”

The ghost of stereotypes in the art market is no different from other pre-established molds. They all go in the same cocktail shaker: male chauvinism, power, self-esteem, all violence. But this Cuban has fought with everyone, she has looked them in the eyes.

“I don’t have to invent a discourse, that you need a connection with the earth… No, the connection with the earth is always there. In other words, I have a connection with the earth by being consistent with whom I am. The connection with the earth is when you are connected with your spirit. The thing is that I can’t sing uncomfortably. Now you have to put up with me like this, because the most comfortable shoes are your own feet”.

In less than a decade, Daymé Arocena has experienced the freedom to express herself, to create and to love herself. She looks for answers in the people going to her concerts, and in those invading her on social networks. She’s knowledgeable of dialogues and sincere faith. She trusts music which always answers her questions.

“Why should I think about clothes and shoes, if the important thing is music? No matter if I present myself naked, I will offer you my soul when I sing. Enough, stick to that. When I die tomorrow, may my spirit rise with the reassurance that I was consistent with my feelings.”

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.


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