Havana's Daymé Arocena Bridges Gap Between Cuban & American Music

Daymé Arocena’s vocal repertoire encompasses scatting, Afro-Cuban chanting, scratchy-throated whispers, and a deep, gusty laugh.

On her cover of the classic “Cry Me A River” (not the Justin Timberlake track), the 22-year-old from Havana sings to a ritualistic rumba beat, her voice pouring liquid over hectic conga beats before breaking out in soulful celebration of the storied perfect combination of Cuban music and jazz. While U.S. and Cuban politicians currently struggle to find common ground, Arocena’s big voice finds harmony in the two countries’ shared musical history.

“Cry Me a River” is one of four tracks on Arocena’s first solo EP, produced by Gilles Peterson as part of the Havana Cultura series on his Brownswood label. The recording introduces a precocious artist with a typically Cuban wide range that flows easily from emotional ballads to the call of timba dance music. The swinging track “El Ruso” lightly touches on life in Havana in the years of Soviet influence.  

As a Cuban jazz singer, Arocena follows a decades-long tradition of female artists, including Omara Portuondo and Elena Burke, who adopted American standards to create the smoky jazz style called filin. With her deep vocals and Afro-Cuban religious spirit, Arocena most recalls the powerhouse Mayra Caridad Valdes, best known for performing with her brother Chucho Valdes’ band Irakere.  

Arocena appeared as a child on Cuban TV singing “Let It Be,” and by age 14 was performing professionally with a big band called Los Primos. She was recruited for a project with Canadian jazz musician Jane Bunett before working with Peterson.

Peterson’s brilliant series of Cuban recordings includes collaborations with rap group Los Aldeanos and singer Danay Suarez, who -- after appearing on three Havana Cultura records -- was signed by Universal Music Latin, and was recently seen at SXSW. With concert dates this month in Paris and London, Arocena is similarly poised for attention, and seems ready to join the ranks of commanding female artists often described as global divas.