REVIEW : Daymé Arocena at The Waiting Room, N16

Daymé Arocena. Photo credit: Casey Moore

Daymé Arocena
(The Waiting Room, N16. Review by Peter Jones)

Among the hipster cafés and all-night Turkish barbershops on Stoke Newington High Street is an unassuming pub with a small and equally unassuming basement bar. An unlikely setting, you might think, for a jazz performance of devastating brilliance by one of the most exciting new vocal talents to emerge in recent years.

Daymé Arocena (‘Die-may Aro-chayna’) weaved her way through the packed audience towards the stage, a tiny figure in a simple white dress and white headdress. When she reached the microphone and turned her 1,000-watt smile on us, and we were won over before she’d even sung a note. And how many other singers could get an audience singing along on the opening number?

Arocena hails from Cuba, but her music draws much of its inspiration from Africa, with its complex rhythms and choral, call-and-response vocal style. It’s also strongly jazz-based. Her producer Simbad (who played percussion and alto sax on this gig) has been closely involved in the musical setting, putting her together with British jazz musicians Robert Mitchell (keys) and Oli Saville (percussion). For tonight’s performance the album’s double bassist, Neil Charles, was replaced by Tom Mason.

The majority of the set was from Arocena’s recent debut album Nueva Era (reviewed in London Jazz News on 11 May, link below), and I pondered in advance how they would cope without the massed vocal harmonies that are such a feature of the album. As it turned out, apart from using a couple of introductory backing tapes, they simply re-arranged the songs for a smaller ensemble. Daymé is such a one-woman musical powerhouse that she could probably have done the entire gig a cappella.

Fortunately that was not necessary, as the band proved more than capable of keeping up with her. Mitchell in particular wowed a largely non-jazz audience with blistering electric piano solos, particularly on El Ruso and Drama. Mason, Arocena informed us, had learned the entire set in one rehearsal, and played it on the gig without charts – quite an achievement, given the complexity of the music.

But it was the singer – charisma and confidence on full blast - who really held the audience’s attention throughout. There was an especially loud roar of approval for the single Don’t Unplug My Body, which has been receiving airplay in recent weeks.

Arocena has the full skillset as a performer and bandleader, expertly cueing the band during the tunes, playing hand percussion, improvising vocally, and confiding with the audience between songs as if they were her most intimate friends. It’s a cliché, but no exaggeration to state, on the evidence of this gig, that a new star is born.

LINK: CD Review of Nueva Era (2015)

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