AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
As President Obama touched down in Cuba over the weekend, Cuban artists were making waves at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin. Organizers of the so-called South by Americas series held a "Sounds Of Cuba" showcase. Record label reps, music press and Latin music fans got to see rappers, Afro-Latin jazz singers and more from the Cuban music scene.
The show was the first of its kind at the festival, given the difficulty Cuban artists have had getting clearance to travel abroad. Some had never performed on a U.S. stage. Our guide to Latin music is NPR's Felix Contreras, host of the Alt.Latino podcast. I caught up with him in between a packed schedule of South by Southwest shows to find out who might be the breakout star. He said remember this name - Dayme Arocena.
FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Dayme Arocena has a voice that I like to say contains both Aretha Franklin and Celia Cruz in the same breath. And she is working a part of the music scene that is far from the pop world, but very artistically complex and compelling. And she's got this wonderful warmth and personality that comes across even on record.
But live, everybody in the place fell in love with her. And what she's doing is she's drawing on all of this contemporary music that's happening in Cuba. A mixture of salsa, a mixture of jazz, a mixture of hip-hop, neo-soul - that nice little combination. And then adding elements of Afro-Cuban rumba with music, with vocals, with dancing styles - all of that, and put in this really wonderful package.
CORNISH: Is there a song of hers that you think is a kind of good introduction to her music?
CONTRERAS: The track "Madres" from the last album that she put out is a perfect example of the soul influence, the slow, powerful and intoxicating beats and rhythms. I can't get enough of this song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MADRES")
DAYME AROCENA: (Singing in Spanish).
CORNISH: Her powerful voice and that description from NPR's Felix Contreras made me think Dayme Arocena would be a diva, broad and imposing. So imagine my surprise when this petite and bubbly woman with an infectious laugh found our quiet corner in the Austin Convention Center.
AROCENA: Hello, my name is Dayme Arocena. I am from Havana, Cuba (laughter).
CORNISH: Arocena is 24 years old and well-known in Cuba, where she's been performing in bands and choirs publicly for a decade. But sitting down with us in the middle of a crowded convention hall, she was shy about singing one of the first songs she learned in English at the age of five, Whitney Houston's version of "I Will Always Love You."
AROCENA: Oh my God. (Singing) if I should stay - I don't want to know the lyric. Your way (laughter).
CORNISH: See what I mean about that laugh?
CORNISH: That's pretty much what it sounded like.
CORNISH: I can't imagine you being a little girl, singing that.
AROCENA: No, I...
CORNISH: What was your voice like?
AROCENA: I - when I was when I was a kid, I had, like, quite a loud voice (laughter). So loud. Now I'm getting lower. But, you know, everyone in my neighborhood knew when I was singing because (laughter) the voices were going out everywhere, always (laughter).
CORNISH: Dayme Arocena is Afro-Cuban. Her head is crowned with a tightly-wound white turban. The color is a symbol of her Santeria faith, which encompasses West African and Roman Catholic elements. People often point to her faith when talking about her music. I started by asking her how she describes her music.
AROCENA: That's always a good question because I don't know yet. It always has a jazzy taste, but I'm so Cuban, so in the Cuban mood. I try to be honest, always, with myself. And that's why my music sounds like me. When the people get my music, people can get my soul, too. It's like that.
CORNISH: She grew up singing in a youth choir whose director taught jazz along with songs from Queen and the Beatles. Dayme Arocena also reflects a new generation of Cuban musicians who grew up listening to pirated CDs. She was in that audience of nearly half a million a few weeks ago who turned out to see EDM superproducer Diplo in Havana.
And finally, Arocena's the product of Cuba's highly selective music education system. That's where she learned classic composition and choral arrangements. But she says that education had his limits.
AROCENA: The musical school in Cuba is classical. It's tough. That's all you get in the school. I think because - we have two big reasons. First, we don't have enough money in the country to give instruments to all the kids to study music or to try music, so they get to select, like, 20 kids per province to study music.
CORNISH: Twenty kids per province.
AROCENA: It's a big test. And if you get this test, you get the musical school. But they are focused in the music that you cannot get in the street because in Cuba, you can get any kind of music in the streets. You can learn to play rumba, to play salsa, to play everything. But to play Bach, to play Mozart, you have to go to the musical school.
CORNISH: You talk about growing up in Cuba and what it was like in terms of getting your musical education. What is your hope for Cuba now, especially with the change in relationship with the U.S.? What do you hope for Cuban performers?
AROCENA: First, being so honest, information. In Cuba, we don't get enough information from the world. Everyone outside - what they are doing, what they are playing, how the people are producing. So we need to exchange blood. We need to see the people outside Cuba - how they produce, how they work. And they have to see what we are doing in Cuba, and what we are playing, what we are creating, that are not still in the '50s playing songs or Latin jazz. I'm not the star, I'm not a god. I'm just a person. Cuba is a country with 11 million persons. Come on, we need to be out. The people have to see us.
CORNISH: Dayme Arocena, thank you so much for speaking with us.
AROCENA: (Laughter) No, my pleasure. I'm so proud to be here. Yeah, thank you (laughter).
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STUCK")
AROCENA: (Singing) You've got me in your power. I can't decide which way I'm stuck.