In celebration of International Jazz Day, we had the privilege of speaking to the Havana born and raised 28-year-old singer, choir conductor, and composer Daymé Arocena about her music journey. In our Cuban Jazz playlist on TIDAL, we feature Daymé’s Homenaje from her latest album, Sonocardiogram. Daymé chats with us from her home in Toronto, and takes us on a trip through Cuba’s rich music history.
[Editor]: What do you want our readers to know about contemporary Cuban music?
First, to understand music in Cuba, you have to understand Cuba. Before 1959, Cuban musicians were getting influence from everywhere. The music was developing and reinventing, and that’s why we have big ages of movement. The beginning of Cuban music, danzón and contradanza, was inspired by French music from Paris. It was really complicated to dance to. I don’t even know how to dance to it! Then we have bolero. Then cha-cha-cha, created by Enrique Jorrin.
Then we get the big movement filin, which is all of those beautiful songs which people call boleros. People like Louis Miguel brought a lot of those songs back in the 90s.
Then we get mambo, the first big meeting between the United States and Cuba. The big band arrived in Cuba, in a Cuban way, with congas and bongos. It was like swing and New Orleans style, but at the same time it had montuno. It was a huge movement.
There is also the vibe of the music of the Caribbean with more traditional songs from Santiago de Cuba to Havana, coming with the immigration of people to and from Cuba. In the 1990s, the movement of Timba was huge. Timba is not salsa. It’s really complicated to dance to. People didn’t want to travel because Cuba was the place to play Timba.
In 1959, there was the Cuban revolution with no more people coming in and going out. That’s why people around the world are stuck in the idea that Cuban music is that of before 1959. In the 90s, when Buena Vista Social Club was really big, nobody was listening to or playing that music in Cuba, so people felt disrespected. People were bringing this to the world as the Cuban music to listen to, whilst another 40 years of music was being ignored!
It was disappointing for that generation to confuse people around the world with music that is more than 100 years old. We have to respect that tradition, but it was unfair for the development of Cuban music.
After 1959, we had songo, a lot of rhythms and genres. We didn’t stop! What stopped was the industry. We didn’t have industry to publish our music overseas. Everything we were creating was stuck. People don’t know that there are people playing music like me in Cuba. They expect mambo or cha-cha-cha, but that is 70-years-old music.
Daymé speaks to us about her invitation to teach master classes at Berklee College of Music.
Berklee was an impossible dream to reach. As a Cuban I thought I’d never get there. I remember saying to someone “I wish I could study there” and they said “you could teach there”. Those students got the opportunity I didn’t have. I cannot believe that there are students who apply to Berklee singing my music. That’s huge!
Camila Cortina is one of the only students who got to study at Berklee from Cuba. She was my professor in Cuba, and she’s a student there now! Sometimes you don’t believe things that are happening to you, especially because in Cuba there is no opportunity. I wasn’t even allowed to perform in Cuba.
In Cuba you need the permission of the government to perform, even if you’ve studied music at school. When you finish school you have to apply for permission to perform, and that obligation is a huge nightmare. I wanted to play my own music and have my own band. I applied three times and was denied. I remember the first global tour I did as Daymé Arocena, I was surprised that I didn’t need permission from other governments to perform. I didn’t know that that was just Cuba!
I started travelling the world, but I’d return to Cuba and not be allowed to perform. The government noticed that I was in The New York Times and The Guardian. The Minister of Culture said to me “they stole you from us!”. I said, “I was here! You denied me three times!”. I know people in the same situation. People who are so talented and not allowed to perform in Cuba.
There are a lot of statements to make as a Cuban artist. I need to speak for those who are still waiting for their chance. I believe if I have the good luck to do things, I don’t need to be selfish. Everything is pretty raw in Cuba, there is a lot of talent but people don’t get the opportunity or the information.
I try to speak about my community, my people. They are my biggest supporters. I don’t have many followers on Instagram, because they just got it, they don’t know how to use it! I have to speak for them. If they have a cell phone now, it doesn’t get the internet, it’s pretty old style.