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Genre-defying vocalist Daymé Arocena comes to Berklee Nov. 18

Scott Haas
Genre-defying vocalist Daymé Arocena comes to Berklee Nov. 18
Daymé Arocena comes to the Berklee Performance Center, Nov. 18 at 8 p.m. PHOTO: PABLO DEWIN

Vocalist Daymé Arocena will be in concert on Thursday, Nov. 18 at 8 p.m. at the Berklee Performance Center. Arocena, who hails from Cuba, defies genres in her integration of jazz, African percussion and the traditional sounds of her homeland. Still in her 20s and currently living in Toronto, Canada she is embarking on a career that is reshaping what music is expected to sound like. The Banner caught up with Arocena by phone in New York City.

Banner: Your latest recording, “Sonocardiogram,” which came out in 2019, has an unusual title. Tell us about the album.

Daymé Arocena: The title is inspired by the word “Echocardiogram.” I wanted people to hear my heartbeat through the sounds of my music. “Sono” means sound in Spanish, and the album is what’s in my heart. I’m pretty open-minded. I don’t want to be in a box. I mean, people were so confused by my music: ‘What kind of box is she in? Is it jazz? Pop? What is it?’ But it’s what’s inside me: the person. I want my music to reflect my energy, as music is one of the first things that humanity experiences to communicate with nature, the elements of the earth — the sun, the moon, the rain, the soil.

You perform before European, North American and Cuban audiences. How do they differ? How are they similar?

The American and the Cuban crowds are very similar: passionate! I love the passion, the real energy. In Europe, it depends. It’s the same vibe with younger audiences. With older audiences, it can be too polite; they may focus on doing things correctly. But you have got to have fun! Make your heart and soul joyful.

You were quoted in The New Yorker saying that when you started out, you didn’t know much about jazz, but then you heard Nina Simone sing “I put a spell on you.” What about that recording resonated for you?

I was just 15 years old. All I knew was that I wanted to be a good singer. I had heard Whitney Houston; what a powerhouse! I wanted to sing like those women with big voices. And at 15, I didn’t think that jazz was joyful, and that it was for old people. The Nina Simone recording sounded like the blues. She had a powerhouse voice, but she incorporated elements I had never heard in my life. She could do whatever she wanted to do with her voice. After that, I heard her do “I loves you Porgy,” and it was so clean, simple and sad. It was the next level.

Didn’t you try to start an all-women’s jazz band in Cuba? What happened with that?

It happened! We were just not allowed to perform. We did record an album about 10 years ago, the title of which translates in English to “The deep sound of the stones.” We called ourselves Alami.

Tell us about the influence of Santeria music in your compositions. 

Santeria music has chants for every single element of nature. I know about 10% of the chants! There are so many — for wind, water, the ocean, rivers, the sun, the moon, and so on. All of these have words and melodies. And drums. The drums communicate. In Cuba, we had the good luck of keeping the drums as part of our tradition. It influences every single song I do. The legacy of our ancestors.

I heard that you’re turning 30 in February. How will you celebrate musically?

I’m going to have to think about that! In Cuba, they say it’s when your life starts.

What will the Berklee event be like?   

There will be a big band with horns and violins and me singing. You know, when I got the invitation and realized that students will be studying my music in preparation for this for months, I thought, ‘Am I crazy? Am I dreaming?’ It’s so great! I would never have expected in my life at this age, at this position, to inspire others.

Admission: $15/$20 in advance, $20/$25 day of show
$15 discount on admission with Berklee ID

COVID protocols in place — see concert website for more information.