On her new album, Cubafonía, Cuban singer/songwriter Daymé Arocena draws from the rich musical inspiration of the island’s Afro-Cuban rhythms and pairs them with jazz adaptability, modern pop, and Crescent City bombast. She stirs up a potent brew, presenting her vision of Cuba as a shifting and hybridized place. Eclecticism isn’t merely a buzzword in Arocena’s social media mentions; it’s an artistic way of life for the singer, reflecting her personal view of her homeland. “We don't have this native culture,” Arocena says. “We don't have indigenous people, like Maya or Quechua. They made a country with people from everywhere – that’s what makes Cuban culture so different.”
Born in 1992 and raised in Havana, Arocena studied music from a young age, singing in a choir and formally studying Western classical traditions. But at home her musical training was more spontaneous and organic. Growing up in a two-bed house with 21 other people, rumba rhythms were inescapable to the young Arocena. She sang folkloric music with her family and friends, and practiced the island’s Santería religion, incorporating singing and dancing. “Music is my God and my faith,” Arocena told Vibe. “Music was my link to religion. I fell in love with Santería’s music before the Santería’s religion. The saint I have is Yemaya—like the sea, she whispers in my ears the songs that I write.”
Her debut album, Nueva Era, appeared in 2015, but the singer considers Cubafonía her first “proper” recording. Working with a cast of Cuba’s best session musicians, she incorporates her wide-ranging tastes, spiritually connecting to the gospel sounds of Aretha Franklin, the buoyant mambo of Pérez Prado, the rumba of La Lupe, and nodding toward the modern sounds that fascinate Arocena (she namechecks Pulitzer Prize–winning rapper Kendrick Lamar and modern electronic R&B singer Anderson Paak as artists with whom she’d like to collaborate).
Singing in a blend of English and Spanish, Arocena offers slow-jam ambiance (“Como”), shuffling dance music (“Lo Que Fue”), percussive guaguancó (“La Rumba Me Llamo Yo”), and folksy changüí, a style popular in Guantanamo (“Valentine”). It’s music built around cultural conversation, connecting to Cuba’s African roots and extrapolating them in dozens of global directions at once.
All of this comes natural to a Cuban, Arocena says; cultural exchange is the very nature of the island. Rumba, the foundation of Afro-Cuban music, incorporates clave rhythm, connecting to Abakuá and yuka traditions and sharing a name with the Spanish “la clave,” an instrument essential to its sonic signature. What’s more, Santería is a religious hybrid, combining Catholic traditions with the spiritual practices of West African Yorubas.
This spirit of combination and reimagining guides Arocena and provides lift to her dynamic music. Using the musical heritage of her homeland as a starting point, she brings the influences she’s gathered while traveling the world to explore new musical terrain. “My body’s searching / my soul is always finding,” she sings on the beautiful “Maybe Tomorrow,” and it sums up Arocena’s process of continual discovery and openness to what tomorrow might bring.