By Tammie Thompson
The Reno community and University of Nevada, Reno students had the opportunity to enjoy a series of events on Cuban jazz, music and culture with Daymé Arocena on April 7 and 8. The weekend of events included a performance masterclass with Daymé Arocena and a panel discussion on "Women in Cuban Jazz," culminating in a packed concert performance by the Cuban musician and her Cuban trio.
A unique opportunity to showcase a Cuban artist and fully Cuban band, Ruthie Meadows, assistant professor of Ethnomusicology at the University, helped facilitate Daymé Arocena’s visiting artist residency.
Meadows has a special connection with Cuban music, having served as the resident director for the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Abroad program at the University of Havana, Cuba (Falls of 2012-2015), where she coordinated all on-site academic and administrative matters for students enrolled at UH and the Fundación del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano (FNCL). Her first book, “Efficacy of Sound: Power, Potency and Promise in the Translocal Ritual Music of Cuban Ifá-Òrìsà,” (The University of Chicago Press, October 2023), also focuses on Cuban ritual music.
“Daymé Arocena is a true alchemist, and this unique artist brought her transformative music and energy to her visiting artist residency,” Meadows said. “Our students, faculty and community members let us know that they were impacted and inspired by Arocena’s ability to transform those around her with her energy, her way of being in the world, her voice and her music. It’s not often that you meet an artist who can transmute your experience, who can make anyone dance, and who can reconnect us all with the beauty of the world that surrounds us. We are so grateful for her visit!”
Havana-born Daymé Arocena is a vibrant vocalist, composer and bandleader of contemporary Cuban jazz and jazz fusion (fusión). Described as a pioneer of “a new vanguard of women in Cuban jazz” by The New Yorker, Arocena won the Juno Award (2015) for Best Jazz Album and received a Grammy nomination for Best Latin Jazz Album (Oddara, 2018), both for her collaborative work with the Cuban, all-female group Maqueque and Canadian multi-instrumentalist Jane Bunnett.
Since, Arocena has crafted a rich solo career as a bandleader in Cuba and internationally, receiving widespread critical acclaim for her breakout albums Cubafonía (2017) and Soniocardiogram (2019). A third album produced by Grammy award-winning Puerto Rican multi-instrumentalist Eduardo Cabra is on the way. Across projects, Arocena’s compositions uniquely meld Cuban and U.S. jazz sensibilities with Afrocuban ritual music (Santería), secular rumba and classical voice to offer a transformative experience of contemporary Cuban jazz. Trained classically in Cuba’s elite arts conservatories, Arocena offers masterclasses and performances at academic institutions and universities in the United States.
Arocena’s visiting artist residency at the University of Nevada, Reno and Reno-Tahoe centered on gendered and racial justice in Cuban, U.S. American, and global jazz as well as on Arocena’s unique life experiences and artistry, offering students and community members expansive conversations that heightened our understanding of the diversity of women’s experiences in music.
For the culminating concert at the University, Arocena spoke of the energy of Reno and its surrounding mountains and natural landscape, asking us to “take care of it”:
“It’s a pleasure for us to be in Reno for the first time,” Arocena said. “I have to say that, honestly sometimes… you travel a lot, you see different places, but not always do you see a place with so much energy. Maybe because you are surrounded by these beautiful mountains, it’s not like going to a city full of high buildings; it’s different. It feels different because it’s like a connection between nature and humans and civilization. You know that you can just drive twenty minutes or one hour and you are just inside, inside that pure nature, which is amazing. You, you guys, you have a gift. So, take care of it. Be mindful of it.”
With rigorous applause, the audience couldn’t agree more.
Arocena opened her performance with a suite named Trilogía (Trilogy) dedicated to three orichas (deities) of the Santería religion: Oyá, Oshún, and Yemayá – a religion that deeply informs her life and music.
Arocena also noted that she was very impressed that the University Music Department had an initiated ritual drummer (called omo Añá) in batá, or the sacred drums of Santería, teaching batá drumming and the music of Santería (referring to percussionist and director of the Department of Music’s World Percussion Ensemble, Chance Utter).
“I was so impressed about knowing that you guys have some omo Añá in this school teaching batá drumming, teaching Yoruba chants,” Arocena said. “Like, I was so impressed. I met like five or six different students that are already studying batá at this school. Honestly? I never imagined that in Reno. So, I feel more than welcome singing this kind of music to you. And I get the power of your voices.”
The audience reacted in kind, moving and dancing to the music. Feedback was positive, with several students responding that the music was so good at connecting – opening them up and releasing tension within.
Daymé Arocena’s visiting artists residency was presented by the University of Nevada, Reno Department of Music, the School of the Arts, and the Ozmen Institute of Global Studies, with additional support from the College of Liberal Arts Diversity Series and the Departments of History and Gender, Race, and Identity (GRI). This event is made possible through the generous support of the Hilliard Endowment and the College of Liberal Arts, with further support from Nevada Humanities.