DAYMÉ AROCENA: ‘Cubafonia’ (Brownswood)

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Many people imagine that given Cuba’s isolation and insularity in the long reign of Fidel Castro, that its music and culture essentially remain unchanged, as if they had been trapped in a time bubble for fifty or so years. But 24-year-old vocal phenom, Daymé Arocena – who always dresses in white and sings barefoot – instantly dispels this notion as a fallacy with a sensational new album that shows that some of Cuba’s younger performers are hip to what’s going on musically in the rest of the world. This entrancing album – which follows on from her previous Brownswood releases as part of the label’s Havana Cutura series – functions as a bridge between eras: between the old Cuba of Castro, referenced by some of the traditional musical styles (like the Rumba) that Arocena grew up with, and the post-Castro, forward-looking Cuba of today. The latter is represented by the influence of jazz, R&B, neo-soul and even classical music on Arocena’s unique sound, which is a piquant fusion of different flavours but which remains quintessentially Cuban in character.

The soulful young singer – whose voice is both powerful and pliable – gives us a glimpse of a different Cuba with the eleven songs on this offering. The opener ‘Ellegua’ is richly dramatic; a hypnotic minor key jazz groove rising on a ostinato bass line over which the young singer contributes some soaring vocals. La Rumba Me LLamo You is more traditional in feel, factoring in the traditional, see-saw montuno piano rhythms. ‘Mambo Na’ Ma’ is one of the set’s killer cuts, which comes over like a Havana version of Incognito with its blend of jazz-infused dance rhythms with an infectious chorus and punchy horns. ‘Como,’ sung in English, is another standout  cut. It’s an elegant mid-tempo ballad with a Sade-esque groove, where Arocena’s exquisite voice is framed by orchestral strings.  Even slower is the gorgeous ‘Angel,’ where Ms. Arocena turns down the volume and instead shows shows great sensitivity and a quiter mode of emotional intensity.

Different again is the more exploratory is ‘It’s Not Gonna Be Forever,’ which integrates transitional Cuban music with jazz and funk. Overall, this is an exciting, new style of Latin fusion that should appeal to aficionados of traditional Cuban music as well as the modernists. In short, ‘Cubafonia’ is a delicious revelation.

(CW) 4/5