By John Stevenson

It’s difficult to believe that Daymé Arocena is only 22 years old. Coming from a musically endowed family, the Cuban singer, composer, arranger, choir director and band leader has already established a remarkable artistic footprint. Havana Cultura and Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings have recently collaborated to release her EP, “Daymé Arocena – The Havana Cultura Sessions” on CD and MP3 format. The EP brings together rumba and jazz styles.

Daymé’s formidable talent was spotted in 2008 by François Renié, the communications director of Cuban rum maker, Havana Club, and founder of the Havana Cultura, an emporium for the promotion of Cuban arts and culture. He remembers his first encounter: 

Gilles and I met Daymé for the first time on Gilles’ first trip to Cuba, with Edrey [from Grammy nominated Cuban project Ogguere] improvising at a rumba session at a friend’s place. She started to sing and we were amazed. She was just a teenager.” 

Though she was considered at the time to be too young to be part of that project, her time came with the Havana Cultura Mix project, in which Gilles Peterson mentored selected producers from various parts of the world to make a record in Cuba with local musicians. On this occasion, she auditioned and made a decisive impression. She was invited to sing three tracks on the Havana Cultura Mix, including the soaring ‘U Knew Before’. Gilles invited her to London to launch the album and after charming a packed audience, it was decided that she should record a solo project for Brownswood Recordings and Havana Cultura – an excellent introduction to Daymé’s jaw-dropping vocal prowess.

Recorded in London and Havana, EP features Drama, a showcase for her trademark melange of jazz and Latin styles.  On Sin Empezar Daymé mixes things up again with a wide range and use of tones in a superb song. The American torch song Cry Me a River is given a special rumba treatment.

Daymé follows in a long line of important singers from Cuba. They include Graciela Perez, Omara Portuando, Marta Valdes, Mayra Caridad Valdes, Lilia Exposito and Yusa.

Like African-American jazz singer Diane Reeves, Daymé is deeply spiritual and draws on her Yoruba-Santeria beliefs. Evidence of this abounds on the song ‘Madres’, a haunting invocation to Oshun (the mistress of the rivers) and Yemanya (the mistress of the sea).

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