Daymé Arocena’s energizing show celebrates Cuban history

by Savannah Miller | 4/17/18 2:25am

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Source: Courtesy of Daymé Arocena

Daymé Arocena walks onto the stage like a ray of light. Barefoot and dressed head-to-toe in white, Arocena finally appears on the left side of Spaulding Auditorium. Her band — comprised only of a bassist, pianist and drummer — has played up to a crescendo for the past five minutes. She steps out of the darkness with a beaming smile, and the audience claps ferociously. Her entrance seems a spectacle, a finale, yet the show is just getting started.

Hailed as a mix of Celia Cruz and Aretha Franklin, Arocena has been making a name for herself. A 26-year-old Havana native, she was accepted into one of Cuba’s most prestigious music schools at the age of nine. Since then, she has morphed into a prolific composer, musical director and singer. In 2007, she received the Martí y el Arte award for her music, and just this past year, she released her third album “Cubafonía.” At the beginning of her career Arocena is already making waves.

When Arocena performed last Thursday at the Hopkins Center for the Arts, her versatility, talent and energy were on full display. Arocena sang a mixture of upbeat crowd-pleasers like “Mambo Na’ Mà” and “La Rumba Me Llamo Yo” with her more sentimental pieces like “Todo Por Amor.” The common thread throughout each song was her excitement to be on a stage singing her compositions.

The performance was at once a wonderful experience and a learning opportunity. Before several songs, Arocena paused to cheerfully explain the origins of the beats and rhythms she would be using in the next piece, sharing Cuban history in the process. Recognizing that many of her audience members were not familiar with the rumba and other musical traditions of her home country, she responded welcomingly, sharing her home culture in a way that was both fun and educational.

A stellar band supplemented the Cuban powerhouse. Jorge Luis Lagarza, Arocena’s pianist, opened the show with a brief organ solo. After that, he alternated between a standard piano and an electronic keyboard, occasionally playing both at the same time or providing back-up vocals. Rafael Aldama alternated between an electric and upright bass. Drummer Ruly Herrera, who has released an album of his own called “Mal Tiempo,” was extremely entertaining to watch as he tapped out the rhythms and beats of Arocena’s songs. The small group often bantered on stage in between songs, adding a fun and personal feeling to the show.

Arocena often got in on her band’s fun and encouraged her audience to do so as well. She employed audience members as backup vocals, teaching them Spanish phrases and cueing them in. One moment called for audience participation. Arocena brought onto the stage a woman from the crowd, attending the show with her husband, to show her how Cubans expressed love to one another — through repeatedly singing the phrase “I love you” on their knees with an upbeat drum beat behind them. Arocena then gave the audience member a hug for being a good sport.

“You see now why it had to be you and not your husband,” she said as the audience roared with laughter.

Arocena was endearing and genuine, and her pure love for music and people was the main takeaway from the performance. One of my favorite moments came when she talked about her parents, who have been married many years and have worked through their issues with love and understanding. This was followed by a performance of the sweet “Todo Por Amor,” inspired by and dedicated to her parents.

Religion is an inspiration for much of Arocena’s work. The singer practices Santería, an Afro-Cuban belief system that draws from both the Catholicism of Cuba’s Spanish colonizers and from the rituals of the West African men and women they enslaved for work on the islands. Meaning “the worship of saints,” Santería encourages believers to live harmoniously and ethically. Through good works and behavior, practitioners seek to maintain and grow a spiritual energy or force in themselves which is present in all things. Arocena frequently referenced Santeria and her beliefs in the lyrics of her songs, and she performed in all white, an important color in Santería. Before introducing “Gods of Yoruba,” a piece about her religion and the spiritual connection she feels to the slaves who began it, Arocena expressed the joy she felt being able to celebrate her history and religion on the stage with her audience.

Since Arocena’s show, she has dominated my Spotify stream. I firmly believe that Arocena’s remarkable talent and personality will continue to gain recognition for the artist herself and the country that inspires so much of her work.

In the last moments of her performance, the crowd rose to a standing ovation. Arocena told her band to keep playing. She wanted to see people dancing, and she did.