“Give these people more alcohol,” yelled Afro-Cuban vocalist Daymé Arocena in response to the quietly seated crowd at Strathmore AMP on Friday.
In the end, her pleas worked, and the audience got out of their seats en masse to groove to Arocena’s unique take on Cuban music.
“I’m not trying to make something brand new, I’m just trying to follow my sense,” said Arocena. “I’m from the 21st century. My music isn’t going to sound like what was made 50 years ago; it’s going to sound how I sound.”
The show Friday was a part of her summer tour commemorating the March release of her second album “Cubafonia.” Her live set has a much different sound than the record. The album features some prominent guitars and a horn section, while the concerts’ instrumentation was sparse, with Arocena’s vocals backed by a three-piece band of pianist Jorge Luis Lagarza, bassist Rafael Aldama, and drummer Raul Herrera.
This small ensemble and Arocena’s pre-show question-and-answer session gave the show a very intimate atmosphere. Each musician had room to improvise around Arocena’s vocals, and Arocena often engaged in a direct dialogue with the audience, telling them the origins behind many of the songs.
Arocena was as striking visually as she was sonically. Clad in all white, due to her faith in Santeria, Arocena danced around the stage, swinging her arms and hips to the music.
“I think it flows into my body, I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t do drugs, I just have sex, and when I’m on tour I don’t even have sex,” said Arocena. “What makes me really happy is the stage.”
The opening song “Eleggua” began quickly. The band got in the pocket and established a tight syncopated groove built around Aldama’s six-string bass. “Eleggua” is the name of an important deity in Santeria, and Arocena pays homage to the roots of the religion by singing several lyrics in Yoruba, a West African language.
“I fell in love first with Santeria’s music before I started practicing it,” Arocena said. “I cannot talk about myself without talking about my religion.”
After several high-energy dance songs, Arocena changed the pace and sang several ballads. “Como” started off with Arocena, accompanied solely by Lagarza’s piano accompaniment before the rest of the band came in. The lyrics are a mix of English and Spanish, and the instrumentals have a smooth, breezy feel, similar to the jazz-inflected ballads of Sade.
Arocena sang two more ballads, “Todo Por Amor,” a song written as a tribute to her parents. Much like “Como,” the song features a pop sensibility, separating it from the previous jazzier cuts. She followed “Todo Por Amor” with “Angel.” Unlike the previous pop-oriented cuts, “Angel” doesn’t have lyrics, instead featuring Arocena’s vocals longing for something we cannot see.
“When I’m traveling, sometimes I take the seat, I sleep for five minutes, and I wake up with a melody in my head,” said Arocena when asked about her songwriting. “It comes when it wants to come”
Due to Cuba’s unique musical education system, Arocena is classically trained and worked as a choir conductor for many years. Arocena says her classical roots still affect her current music.
“I got my classical training from 10 years old to 19; I spent all my life studying classical music: Bach, Mozart, Schuman, all those guys,” Arocena said. “I fell in love with Bach. For a lot of people he was the first jazz player; he improvised a lot of his polyphonic music. It's a lot of information for us jazz players.”
Arocena then immediately revved the energy back up, with her unique take on Latin dance styles. “Mambo Na Ma” was full of Ella Fitzgerald style of scatting, featuring fast melodic runs, dancing around the rhythm.
Here the dinner party atmosphere of the crowd began to crack, and people started getting up out of their seats to dance en masse.
With the crowd now out of their seats Arocecena, expressed her raw sexuality in “Don’t Unplug My Body” and “It’s Not Gonna Be Forever.” The latter song displayed Arocena’s sense of humor with lyrics playfully teasing a lover and playful scatting throughout the piece.
“If I feel a song in four languages, I do it in four languages. I don’t care if people don’t get it because that’s what I hear in my ears,” said Arocena. “Don’t create something that you are not; you don’t need to pretend you are something, you already are something. Just try to develop yourself and you’re going to find something beautiful.”