‘Dust’, the story of an asthmatic singer in a filthy Toronto household. Tipped as the next big Cuban music star, not long afterwards she joined Peterson and London rumbero Adé Egun (Crispin Robinson) on a journey through rumba culture in 2016’s album and feature-length documentary, Havana Club Rumba Sessions. She performed at the Barbican as a guest in US jazzer Miguel Atwood Ferguson’s acclaimed Suite for Ma D ukes show, and alongside Roy Ayers and Brazilian star Ed Motta at Peterson’s Worldwide Festival. Then off she went around the globe, playing everywhere from Paris and Los Angeles to Sydney and Tokyo, her white garb and repertoire of chants piquing interest in Santería, whose syncretism she explains, Arocena-style, as “a religion born in Cuba, where the mother is Catholic and the father is African [Yoruba].”
songwriting, which now did justice to her astounding vocal range. “I have a very strong voice,” she says matter-of-factly. “But when I sing, I also want people to appreciate the beauty of nuance, subtlety and intelligence.”
Arocena’s fans – including a loyal front-row of UK-based Cubanas – who flocked to her gigs at London venues, including Rich Mix and the now-defunct Forge in Camden, couldn’t help
“I want to encourage honesty and authenticity between people”
but note the light and shade in her performances. Neither could crowds at festivals such as WOMAD, where her sets commanded double takes from fellow artists; WOMADelaide 2018 saw Arocena hanging out with British singer Lianne La Havas and American bass-playing genius Thundercat, who famously
In 2017 came her second album Cubafonía (reviewed in #123), a work that set out to tell the history of Cuban music, much as the pianist Roberto Fonseca did with his 2016 masterwork ABUC (on which Arocena sang guest vocals). But where Fonseca’s overriding theme – a look back at the evolution of Cuban music – was laid out in the artwork and press material, Arocena’s similarly ambitious concept was left to the listener to infer (“I didn’t see many articles about this so I was very disappointed,”) and Cubafonía’s mesh of jazz, soul and classical was regarded by critics as busy and confusing. What was noted, however, were the improvements in her contributed to the landmark 2015 album, To Pimp a Butterfly by American rapper Kendrick Lamar (an artist Arocena has previously name-checked as one she’d love to work with).
Today she bumps Lamar down her list in favour of a wishlist of female collaborators including Sade, the mercurial British Nigerian chanteuse whose oh-so-smooth jazz hits dominated the 80s charts.
“My father used to play Sade’s records all the time and go a bit crazy, which made my mother jealous,” she says, laughing. “Sade is Yoruba so she’s connected to Oshún, and is on my list of queens. Others are [Afro-Spanish nu-flamenco diva] Concha Buika and [Malian singer-songwriter-guitarist and former Songlines cover star] Fatoumata Diawara, whose album Fenfo
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