When Dayme Arocena sings, her santos emerge. Yemaya, Oshun, and Obatala — three saints who claimed her two years ago — take over. Sometimes she slips off her shoes and lets her bare feet touch the ground to feel closer to their energy. She awakens, and soulful rhythms flow from her mouth.
The 23 year-old Celia Cruz/Aretha Franklin hybrid, who was born and raised in Diez de Octubre, Havana, will perform in Miami this week for the first time. Her performances Thursday and Saturday nights will highlight Miami Light Project's Global Cuba Fest.
"People tell me that when they see me onstage, they see someone else," Arocena says.
Yemaya, the mother of all orishas, who births life like the ocean, is one of Arocena's maternal saints. She opens all of her sea of passions and douses the singer in good fortune and drive. "She said to me: 'You are my lucky girl, my lucky daughter.'"
Arocena's spiritual father, Obatala, the sky father and creator of human bodies, commands the mind. He tells her that she is a powerful conductor, able to captivate through her inner peace. She channels that quiet storm directly through her voice.
Oshun, who guiles and flirts, manifests Arocena's magic. "She tells me: 'You are going to have the honey in your body, voice, mouth, and you are going to make everyone fall in love, just being you," the singer says.
Arocena exudes the three spirits, sometimes all at once.
She began practicing Santería two years ago, but she has always listened to Cuban music, bursting with sanctified blessings. When she was growing up, her father had "the beautiful taste" in music, and her mother had "the beautiful voice." They would always play classics from the "Queen of Latino Soul," La Lupe, a devout follower of Santería.
At 8 years old, Arocena joined D’Senitos, a community choir, where she would learn foreign hits from the Beatles and Queen. She learned English while studying Mozart, Brahms, Bach, and other classical music at Alejandro García Caturla School of Art and Amadeo Roldán Conservatory. She would eventually become the group's conductor.
"It was intense," Arocena says of the experience. "You have to make the choir work. You have to be prepared to conduct everyone, young and old, in the same way. That’s the hardest part."
But she has no problem uniting groups. Her music explores a new wave of Latino soul, acting as the connective tissue between jazz and pop music. Her latest album, Nueva Era, defines modern Cuban music: experimental and evocative, reinterpreting the island's vast musical history. "Don't Unplug My Body" recalls Nina Simone's forlorn longing, while "Niño" plays out like a love spell straight from Oshun. Arocena opens with a raspy lullaby, cooing a young boy to sleep, but as the shekere haunts and the piano dips into minor key, one is unsure who this "niño" actually is.
"If you mix jazz with everything, it always works — that’s why I love it. It gives me all the opportunity to create as I feel it," Arocena says. "I always try to be honest with myself. I always try to create as I feel it, even knowing that new song is always going to have that jazzy taste inside."
Like her sanctified father, Obatala, Arocena is a flyer. She spends most of her time touring around the world for days at a time. When she leaves Miami, she'll travel to Belgium and England for concerts. But she remains rooted in Cuba. At 23, Arocena recently bought a home in Vedado, Havana.
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"Being Cuban is in my blood," she says. When I'm in Cuba for more than two months, I want to leave. But when I'm outside of Cuba, I need to come back."
Above all else, Arocena is guided by her ingrained honesty. She underscores theatrics and embellishment, relying on the earnestness of her voice. Some Santería-inspired performers may wail onstage and portray a deep connection, but for Arocena, spirituality is a simple fact. It coexists in her daily life, slipping from the tip of her honeyed tongue, channeling energies, and drawing connections between the physical and ethereal planes.
Performing as part of the Global Cuba Fest at the Miami Light Project this Thursday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $15. Visit miamilightproject.com.