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Havana Cultura: Gilles Peterson on Daymé Arocena

15 April 2016 | Lydia Cooper

When radio presenter and DJ Gilles Peterson saw Daymé Arocena perform for the first time, he knew that he wanted to sign her to his record label. Daymé is now about to perform at Latin music festival La Linea this April. We chatted to Gilles about Cuban music, his rumba documentary and the best venues to perform at in London.

London Calling: Daymé’s personality and stage presence are really obvious when you watch her perform. What first drew you to her music?

Gilles Peterson: I’ve been going to Cuba for seven or eight years now, doing lots of work with up and coming artists. What’s been quite interesting with the work we’ve done is that everyone else has become more involved with Cuba. There’s been a political shift and a new interest in Cuba from America, and everyone’s been asking, “What new music is there?” Fortunately for us, we’ve been working on this kind of music for a number of years now. We’ve done lots of Havana Cultura records, with hip-hop and reggaeton and jazz influences, working with people like Danay Suarez, who’s a brilliant singer, one of the first I discovered in Cuba, and she’s now signed to Universal. I worked a lot with Roberto Fonseca, a world-renowned pianist, and some other really great people, but the one person who’s absolutely destroyed everyone in terms of every level possible is Daymé, who I met three years ago.

 

LC: How did you meet?

GP: I saw her for the first time when she was just fourteen years old. I’d been tipped about her and ended up seeing her singing in her kitchen, and trying to get her mum to let her come and sing on our record, but she didn’t allow it! She was too young, which is fair enough. I didn’t push it, but I was curious. A couple of years later we did another project where we auditioned lots of Cuban artists in front of producers from all over the world, who were encouraged to pick their favourites. That day, Daymé auditioned. Every single producer we’d invited wanted to work with her, which obviously wasn’t possible. It became almost a battle as to who would get her! It was obvious then that she was a remarkable singer and character.

 

LC: And then you yourself ended up working with her?

GP: Yes, since then we’ve been trying to take advantage of any studio time we can get with her, any time she’s in England or in Cuba to get her in the studio! She’s in her early twenties now, but every time she performs she’s remarkable. I’ve worked with so many diverse singers, but she’s unquestionably the most mature singer in spite of her age. Right now she’s touring America, the New York Times have picked up on her, and she’s been asked to perform at the UN Women of the World convention, so she’s about to hit the big time.

 

LC: What kind of projects did you work on?

GP: We’ve done two kind of mini albums with her. We did her debut Nueva Era in the cracks of time that we had with her about a year and a half ago, and another record that we completed in a day in Havana last summer, when I was doing a rumba documentary. We’re yet to make her first proper album, which we’re going to do this summer in Havana. I’m really excited about that. All of this is building up to a point next year where she’ll be winning Grammys, no doubt.

 

LC: Her success story does sound like a fairytale. As a producer, how much did you influence the track listing and what was included on her albums?

GP: The first two records were both quite heavily A&R/executive produced because we had so little time with her in the studio. It was all her material, my co-producer Simbad did work on a couple of pieces with her though. The second E.P. was all cover versions that we picked for her to do. The upcoming record will be her own from the first note to the last: that’s how talented she is. The first two records were produced in a rush, so I was much more involved in those, but they were more build-up stuff - this new album will be the real deal, the real debut.

 

LC: You just mentioned your rumba documentary [Havana Club Rumba Sessions, which will be screened at Rich Mix on the night Dayméplays]. It explores the roots of rumba and your own interest in Cuban music. What is the significance of rumba in contemporary music and culture, and the way that we perceive Latin American music?

GP: It’s an interesting question, rumba. People have different ideas about what it is. To a lot of people, it’s just a dance they do on Strictly Come Dancing, but when you go to Cuba and actually meet the people who are part of what rumba is, it’s the complete opposite of all that: it’s religious, it’s spiritual, it’s historical, it’s complex, it’s the fabric of Cuban music. It’s a long way from that to Bruce Forsyth! I wanted to make a documentary that really explained what rumba was, as there’s almost nothing useful online. For me, it’s the most complex and interesting music. People will go to Cuba and the Buena Vista Social Club and hear some nice salsa or reggaeton, but for me, if you ask what music really draws me in when I go to Cuba, it’s got to be rumba. It’s going past people’s houses in the back streets and hearing two percussionists and singers and dancers: it’s sound system culture without a sound system. It’s how to have a party.

 

LC: Speaking of sound systems, what are your favourite live music venues in London, both for listening to music and DJing?

GP: Funnily enough I played at XOYO the other day, which you usually associate with big club Saturday night vibes, the Fabric-y younger area, but it’s one of my favourite clubs for around a thousand people. I’ve really enjoyed playing at Village Underground now they’ve sorted out the sound system. It’s all about sound. Both of those clubs have great sound systems. Another new venue I’ve been doing more stuff at is The Pickle Factory, opposite Oval Space. It’s tiny, for 200 people, but it’s kind of a natural replacement for somewhere like Plastic People. In terms of listening to music, I love my event every year at Koko, it’s great for live bands. I’m actually going to Cadogan Hall tonight to listen to Michael Kiwanuka. I even like places like Ronnie Scott’s to be honest with you - even though there are a lot of music tourists there, it still has good sounds.

 

Daymé will be performing at La Linea on Thursday 21 April at Rich Mix. Her performance will be preceded by a screening of Havana Club Rumba Sessions: La Clave, a documentary by Charlie Inman exploring the roots of rumba and featuring Gilles Peterson. Doors 8pm, £12 advance, £15 on the door. La Linea launches on 21 April and runs until 28 April in venues across central London.

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