Arts, Culture & Media

Cuba's Daymé Arocena found her religion through music

Screen Shot 2017-06-22 at 1.54.06 PM.png

Afro-Cuban jazz singer Daymé Arocena performs during the New Era concert in Havana, 2016.

Credit:

Denise Guerra/Courtesy

Daymé Arocena strolls onstage barefoot, beaming as her band primes an audience in Boston for 90 minutes of Cuban jazz.

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Her head is wrapped in a white turban and she wears a white dress — the color of Santería, the Afro-Cuban religion born out of European Catholicism and West African Yoruba rituals brought to Cuba by slaves.

Arocena says all of Cuban music is shaped by the rhythms of Santería.

"Santería is the base of Cuban music, basically," she says. "Every single rhythm comes from the batá drum. So even if you are not singing a chant of Santería, if you are playing Cuban music there is a link with Santería."

On "Eleggua," a haunting track off her new album, "Cubafonía," the Santería link is evident.

At 23, Arocena is a new voice in a growing chorus of musicians influenced by Caribbean Yoruba traditions. She joins Ibeyi — the French-Cuban twin sister duo named after the orisha, or saint, of twins — and Nuyorican rapper Princess Nokia.

Even Beyoncé has evoked Yoruba imagery — dressing like the goddess of fertility in her maternity photo shoot, and her "Lemonade" music videos. But Arocena’s relationship to Santería is different.

"In my case, I’m a practitioner so there is a stronger connection," she says. "But at the same time, I don’t push myself to write Santería’s music."

Arocena may practice Santería — she's a devotee of Yemayá, the orisha of the seas — but she says she does not sing only about her religion. Still, her music inspires her worship.

"My link with Santería is more musical," she says. "I fell in love with Santería music before the religion."

She’s a classical composer and director trained in Havana. Her parents and grandmother practiced Santería, so she grew up around the religion, but never paid attention to it herself. Then, she entered a music contest.

"I was looking for making something interesting, and Cuban and pure," she says, "to mix Cuban influences with classical music. And it was the moment that I discovered the treasure of Santería’s music."

"Eleggua," her new single, encapsulates that treasure, and Arocena's distinctly Cuban style of modern jazz: A pounding bassline drives the song into a sometimes chaotic melody, paired with strident keys, and sometimes angelic, joined by otherworldly choir singers.

Eleggua is the orisha of crossroads, who Arocena says can open up good doors and close bad ones, or vice versa. She brings that Cuban lore on tour around the world at a time when President Donald Trump is tightening America's Cuba policy.

She isn’t very political, but Arocena does have one message for the president. 

"He’s welcome in my house. To discover Cuba. And to get a better idea about us."