In 2015, Daymé Arocena dropped her debut solo album, Nueva Era to critical acclaim in the Afro-Cuban and Jazz circles across the world. She proclaimed and ushered her audience into a new era of Afro-Cuban music with serenading yet powerful melodies about mystical spirits and losing love on singles such as her sleeper hit, Come To Me. This year, the Havana based songbird is back to reinforce this new era she is pioneering with her new record, Cubafornina.
The 11 track sophomore album released via Brownswood Recordings and Giles Peterson sees Daymé Arocena seeking to strengthen her brand of music with characteristic silky vocals, spiritual themes and overall dance-inducing joyfulness. Indeed, Cubafornia, from the title alone you get a sense of the direction the artist seeks to take on the tape. Arocena’s sound is rooted in jazz music. Here ability to seamlessly blend her traditional Santeria rhythms with the contemporary acoustic guitar and percussion heavy Cuban music is the ethos of her appeal and accessibility. On Cubafornia, she takes this love from fusion, whilst affirming her individuality to the next level.
The first song, Eleggua, sets the racy tone that this album takes. Named after the Orisha of roads and directions, Arocena begins this album as she did her last with a prayer to guide her on this new direction. However, it is a departure from the soulful and solemn Santeria prayers for a fierce big band evangelical sound. It begins with moody bass scales before the sudden rousing appearance of the horns and drums as Arocena whispers her words underneath. The song then flairs up with the orchestral vocal performance accompanied by various spiritual chants.
This expectant vibe reverberates through the entirety of the record with most of the songs mimicking the big band sound. Song’s such as La Rumba Me llamo Yo also feature sharp jazz piano chords and drums and the strong conga pacing the melody. Arocena’s vocals are also similarly fierce as they are on almost all of her song. In the flurry of instruments competing for attention, her strong domineering voice, rises above all to coordinate the sound. Being a seasoned music, she has no trouble exerting her authority over songs and guides the listeners with gracious dexterity.
Despite the attempt to establish a wider following in America and Europe, Arocena does not stray too far from her core. On the song Como, she reverts to the basics of her cherished soul sound. Her steady voice strolls gently on back of lonely grand piano chords as she croons graciously in English. Then songs snakes into a steady grove when she switches to Spanish and draws in an angelic string section. Arocena radiates the electricity of emotion in the ballad. Como epitomizes the qualities that have placed Daymé Arocena at a position of interest in the jazz and soul music circles. She is aware of the power of her voice and is able to focus it on each lyric she sings such that the sonic and emotional force behind it is not lost but reaches your ears just as she intended.
Cubafornia’s intentions of being a cross over record are unwavering on the album. By rooting her sound in the Cuban musical direction, Daymé Arocena gives jazz a new dimension similar to what Joao Gilberto and Stan Getz did with The Girl From Ipanema, in giving a genre that is growing stale a breath of fresh air by confronting the traditional jazz sound from a new perspective, enhancing its universality and accessibility. Cuba’s new position on the world stage is another reason to be excited about the music. Arocena could definitely be the face of the new Afro-Cuban wave gracing distant shores.
Like Nueva Era, Cubafornia is just under an hour and is produced by Giles Peterson with the glistening string arrangements from Miguel Atwood-Ferguson . Each song is crisp and compact with familiar themes of love, longing and loss threaded along the body of work. Long-time fans of Daymé Arocena would be familiar with her singing in English as it is present on most of her past work. However, on this album she does sing more on English than before. This is the only point at which the artist appears to be a bit unsure. Her usual bright and imposing personality appears out of place as she delivers verses in English, especially on the song “Its Not Gonna Be Forever”. Ultimately, it does not take away from the quality of the dance friendly song which has some mesmeric trumpet solos that eclipse her singing.
On Cubafornia, Daymé Arocena extends the Afro-Cuban sound beyond the Havanna restaurant bands and Santeria folk lyrics. She is definitely more ambitions in her arrangements as she challenges her writing to embrace the mercurial nature of jazz. Nevertheless, she has continued to further the new era she pioneered on her debut album. Cubafornia is the next and necessary step, expansion.
Written by: Hakeem Adam
Image Credit: Daymé Arocena / Casey Moore