We continue our conversation with Cuban artist Daymé Arocena in celebration of International Jazz Day. In Part 1, Daymé discussed Cuban music movements and teaching at Berklee. Here Daymé chats with us about her musical upbringing, creative process, and her song Homenaje from our Cuban Jazz playlist.
[Editor]: Talk to us about your relationship with jazz, as we’d love to know how you got into jazz. Was your musical upbringing learning traditional rhythms such as batá, or was it more of a classical training?
I can say that I didn’t get into jazz, jazz got into me. I never thought I was going to be a jazz singer, I thought jazz was weird music for weird people. When I was a teenager I wanted to sing music like Whitney Houston and Christina Aguilera.
When I was in the conservatory, they had a big band that needed a singer, and I said ok. They gave me My Funny Valentine, Bye Bye Blackbird, a few standards to learn. I was just so into the great energy of the big band, and thriving with it, that at a certain point I was joining them in the jazz festivals of Cuba and Havana.
I started getting invited to join other bands, where I was asked to improvise by imitating the musicians. That is how I started to scat. Eventually I couldn’t listen to pop music anymore. All I wanted to do was sing and hear jazz.
At the same time it was amazing to have this classical training. I was at the conservatory, studying choir conducting, and it was all about Montiverdi and Beethoven. When I was born there were fourteen people living in my house. We had a tiny two-bedroom apartment to share with all of those people. I was born in 1992, when there was a special period of Cuba. There was no electricity, no radio, no tv, but the entire house played rumba!
I grew up that way, listening to rumba in the house, singing jazz in the big band, and studying classical music.
Daymé talks to us about her creative process.
I have been writing music my whole life, I always follow the way the music comes to me. I never push things. I don’t sit in front of the piano and say, “I’m going to write a song”, because I get inspiration in any kind of situation and I just follow that. The way it came is the way it is. I feel I am just a bridge. I get the message and I deliver the message. I am kind of like a “musical Uber”.
For almost 7 years I’ve been getting songs through my dreams. It started happening after I received my religious ceremony, kind of a manifestation or appearance that I get in my dreams. Sometimes I see another artist singing a song in my dreams, and I realize that it’s a new song, and my new song.
For our playlist we’ve chosen Homenaje. Can you tell us what inspired this song?
‘Homenaje’ means ‘homage’. I wanted to have a connection with my previous album, Cubafonía, the pretty Cuban sound. Sonocardiogram is pretty jazzy, let’s say experimental, so I had a few different ideas, each inspired by a Cuban artist I admire.
The beginning was inspired by a song of Emiliano Salvador. Another part was from Arsenio Rodriguez. People believe Rodriguez was the creator of salsa music because he improved the son, which is what Buena Vista Social Club plays. That kind of group used to be seven artists, septedo, clean, and simple. He added piano, a horn section, and he was the first guy that brought the idea of a bigger group in the 50s. It’s what we have today as salsa!
In the very middle there is Cuban pianism, inspired by Lilí Martínez – one of the top guys in the history of Latin pianism in Cuba. At the very end, I was inspired by a woman called Merceditas Valdés, who was the first person to incorporate the chants and sounds of Afro-Cuban religion, which were only known in secret ceremonies. She combined them with jazz and made it popular. It’s my tribute to the big artists and pioneers in Cuban music history.