The Savannah Music Festival (SMF) is a dazzling sonic and visual whirlwind.
Each year since the SMF reimagined itself under the direction of its former Artistic Director Rob Gibson, the festival has offered copious amounts of live jazz music, and much of that has been filtered through the folk and ethnic music of other nations.
Each of those countries and regions grabbed ahold of the improvisational spirit of that most American art form and quickly made it their own. In turn, those innovations were then passed back and forth across the globe and were incorporated into scores of other regional musical genres.
That nimble ability to interpolate and absorb disparate influences is arguably the greatest attribute of music and, in particular, the beauty of jazz itself.
One international artist whose work has not only benefited substantially from the American jazz idiom, but has also enjoyed tremendous acclaim here in the states, is Cuba’s own vocalist supreme Daymé Arocena. At just 27, she is already considered one of the leading exponents of what has come to be known as Afro-Cuban jazz, a hybrid of traditional American piano and horn-dominated jazz that leans heavily on Latin percussion instruments, such as the bongos, timbales and tumbadora to create high-energy, dance-oriented tunes that incorporate traditional Latin clave rhythms.
Arocena’s soaring vocal prowess has been compared to that of the late, gospel star-turned R&B diva Aretha Franklin, and at a very early age came to the attention of such jazz luminaries as Wynton Marsalis, whose imprimatur and guidance greased the wheels for her ascension into the uppermost levels of the jazz world.
She has toured worldwide for several years now, promoting three different LPs of exceptional, infectious and almost preternaturally danceable groove music. On March 29, she’ll make her Savannah debut as part of the SMF at the Charles H. Morris Center.
This musical prodigy is known for fronting astonishingly tight and experienced bands playing complex, polyrhythmic compositions. She also acts as band leader, choir director, composer and arranger of her own material, much of which draws on her spiritual beliefs and the musical influence of blues, soul and even ritual chanting.
In 2017, Arocena told the legendary Boston public radio station WBUR-FM that her musical education began early on, as she was raised in extremely poor conditions in Havana. She shared a two-bedroom home with as many as 20 relatives at the same time. Luckily, according to Arocena, they were a musical family.
“(We) used to sing all the time,” she recalled, noting that was how the family entertained one another. By the time she was 5, she was winning local talent contests by singing well-known tunes by the late, beloved Mexican pop star Selena, and her parents realized that her musical gifts just might hold the key to Arocena’s future.
By 10, she had joined a community choir and started attending an artistically-focused elementary school, eventually winding up at the esteemed Amadeo Roldán Conservatory where she majored in choir direction. The focus at this conservatory was squarely on classical music, but in and among the Bach, Schubert and Mozart there was a bit of room for classic musical works by Cuban composers, as well.
That stringent training instilled in Arocena the curiosity to investigate a wide variety of traditional musical forms and the discipline with which to master them. Her goal now is to prove to the rest of the world that Cuba’s music scene is much more influential and important than may be realized worldwide.
“People know mambo, but some people don't know that mambo is a Cuban rhythm and a Cuban creation,” she told WBUR. “And people know cha-cha-chá, people love cha-cha-chá, but they don’t know cha-cha-chá is a Cuban creation.”
While many listeners were first introduced to Cuban music through the “Buena Vista Social Club” album, documentary and phenomenon partly facilitated by guitarist and musicologist Ry Cooder, who has appeared at the SMF in the past, Arocena feels that collaborative of ace Cuban musicians and the fame their collaboration generated has unfortunately given the rest of the world a slightly reductive view of her homeland’s musical variety.
“People don't know about some of the (other) rhythms we have, authentic rhythms of Cuba," she enthused to WBUR reporter Amelia Mason. “I'm missing conga, I'm missing dengué ... I'm missing contra — I'm missing a lot.”
It’s a safe bet that Savannah audiences will be treated to skillful representations of all those distinctly Cuban rhythms and many more when Arocena and her masterful band of prominent contemporary Cuban players proffer the totality of their island’s musical legacy to what one can only assume will be a raucous and grateful crowd of dancing concertgoers.