CD REVIEW: Daymé Arocena – Nueva Era

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Daymé Arocena – Nueva Era
(Brownswood BWOOD0138. CD Review by Peter Jones.)

This debut album by the 22 year-old Cuban singer, arranger and composer Daymé Arocena will come as a surprise to anyone expecting a familiar Caribbean latin-style repertoire of relentless percussion, chorus of male backing vocals, brass instruments, and so on. Arocena’s music is largely shorn of Spanish influence, rooted instead in a distinctly African heritage. In short, it’s a breath of fresh air, and Arocena is the most interesting female singer in the Spanish language I’ve heard since Concha Buika (although Arocena also sings in English and Yoruba). And despite her youth, she is already a mature composer and performer. Her rich, throaty singing style is passionate and declamatory, but never tiresome. On the contrary, she sings with great sensitivity and is able to convey an impressive range of emotions.

Gilles Peterson has apparently had her in his sights since she was a teenager, but decided to wait until now to record her for his label. The album was produced in London and Havana, mostly by Peterson’s long-time collaborator Simbad, who also co-wrote some of the tunes. The excellent, empathetic core musicians are all London-based, consisting of Rob Mitchell on piano, Neil Charles on double bass and Oli Savill on percussion, with a few other instruments making an appearance from time to time, notably organ and trumpet. But it’s the combination of Daymé Arocena’s solo and massed backing vocals that lie at the heart of this fine album.

Cuban music is famed for its syncretic riot of influences, but the album is in a genre of its own, seemingly constructed from jazz, choral and African music, but only the track El Ruso is identifiably in a vein one might recognise as ‘Cuban’. Especially striking is Arocena’s use of choral harmony, notably on the gorgeous title track, with its deep throbbing percussion, organ and hallucinogenic wash of voices. The opener Madres is another in which the call-and-response voices combine with the percussion and organ to evoke a hypnotic, other-worldly atmosphere. Much of this is apparently derived from the music of the Santeria religion, of which Arocena is a devotee, and which is traditionally conducted in the Yoruba language. At the other extreme is the enjoyable but rather brazenly commercial track Don’t Unplug My Body, which has already had some advance airplay.

I thoroughly recommend this album.

Nueva Era is released on 8th June.

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