Weekly Highlights: Daymé Arocena, Quantic and Songhoy Blues

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by Tom Nguyen

TOO MANY superlatives to describe Daymé Arocena, the talented Cuban singer and composer who graced us with her presence last Monday, March 28 at CFAER: Incredible, charismatic, glowing, powerful, humorous, magnetic. I had chills during so much of her set and I definitely wasn’t alone…everyone in the room was enthralled by her.

Daymé let us know she was playing a different set than her usual…much more rumba faithful to the documentary Havana Cultura Rumba Sessions: La Clave, the very thorough documentary on the history and current state of rumba music and dance in Havana, that was screened before the show. With clave in hand and an excellent band backing her, including LA’s beloved Lazaro Galarraga on congas, she took us on a soaring journey of Afro Cuban rumba and jazz with her powerful voice.

Daymé Arocena is not just a traditional Afro-Cuban singer. She does so much experimentation…her rendition of Ella Fitzgerald’s Cry Me A River with just clave and congas accenting her voice was such an eccentric and unique Afro-Cuban take on a soulful classic. In fact, she told us she was trying new compositions that very night. So bold, so confident! She always humored us between songs and got playful towards the end of her set with a very funky Don’t Unplug My Body. Thanks to Docta Sez for capturing some of her greatness!

After the show, she was off to San Francisco to perform a show with what I was told would be a more house music feel. Daymé is seriously shaking things up between traditional Afro-Cuban rumba, jazz and incorporating electronica. I seriously contemplated driving up there just for that but I’ll just have to content myself with witnessing the magic of her LA show. I thought to myself, this is what it must’ve felt like to be in the presence of a great legend like Celia Cruz…such magnetism, command and passion. Listen, when I tell you next time that there’s a CAN’T MISS SHOW, trust me!

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Thursday, March 31, Quantic rolled into town at the El Rey with a live band, which is always a treat! Since first seeing him perform with a live band at Culture Collide with musicians from Miami and Colombia, and then with Ondatropica at La Cita last summer, I have to admit…I can’t go back to just listening to him spin as a DJ. I neeeeeed that live band!!!

I just caught the tail end of NYC’s Xenia Rubinos and love her voice and confidence…despite a mic that kept going out, she just soldiered on, singing directly to the crowd. True professional! Afro Latin instrumental band Jungle Fire came on next and is always a crowd pleaser with their percussion and horns! I was grooving in the crowd with singer Afrodyete The African Goddess of Love, who has sung with them before. She’s part of a huge lineup in September at the renovated Ford Theater…will keep you posted on that.

Quantic, the consummate perfectionist, is always backed by heavy talent: singer Jimetta Rose, trumpeter Todd Simon, multi-instrumentalist Sly 5th Ave (Sylvester Onyejiaka) and percussionist Wilson Viveros. They opened with a mellow, smooth instrumental before Jimetta came out to get the crowd fired up with her soulful vocals and hip shaking grooves. Enjoy some video by Paulo von Borries.

I would’ve loved to stay for more but I had to rush to The Echo to catch Songhoy Blues from Mali! Their blistering Malian blues and rock had the house in a sweaty frenzy. Their guitarist especially reminded me of Vieux Farka Toure with his long hard-driving solos. Like youthful Bombino to Tinariwen’s elder statesmen, Songhoy Blues represents the next generation of West African artists who are paying homage to their idols by taking the fusion of their traditional sounds and Western music even further. Like their site says, Songhoy Blues is “blending the traditional and the modern, the homegrown and the foreign, the youthful and the ancient.”…all while in the midst of exile.

Their story is pretty extraordinary. During the Malian conflict when Sharia law was imposed by Muslim extremists and music was outlawed, the band formed while in exile in Bamako. They and other Malian musicians are featured in a documentary They Will Have to Kill Us First, showing now in LA through Thursday at Laemmle Monica Center. We take our freedoms for granted here, when bands like Songhoy Blues are risking their lives to make music. Throughout history and struggles across the world, music has always been a weapon and voice for the marginalized and oppressed and thus seen as a threat by the authorities and governments. The band and the film are reminders of the power and importance of music. Catch the film if you can before it leaves LA!

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