Arema Arega 
Singer-composer

She seems to be everywhere in Havana. Her songs are on the radio, she's singing and playing guitar in recording studios and nightclubs, and one day we find Arema Arega sitting in the lobby of our hotel clutching a thick notebook full of drawings and hand-written lyrics. Her interview with Havana Cultura isn't scheduled until the following day, but she's eager for us to see her artwork. She hands us the notebook and watches intently as we turn the pages full of mermaids and Harlequins and other brightly coloured imaginings. As we return her notebook to her we realise that, (a) these are what Arema's dreams look like, and (b) Arema is unwilling or unable to keep her dreams to herself.

Arema is one of the most generous performers you'll ever see. She does whatever she can to make the crowd feel less like a crowd and more like part of her performance. While the Havana Cultura crew filmed her she insisted we sing along ("ay, ay, ay…") while she accompanied us on acoustic guitar. Another evening she pulled one of us on stage to play bass for her. She moves from soul to rap to trova, from Cuban Spanish to Brooklyn English, and she'll sing in French if she thinks you'd like that.

Her songs tend to flow together until you're not sure where they begin or end. With upwards of 200 original compositions in her repertoire, Arema's shows can last as long as the audience yells for more or until even the most accommodating concert venue is required to close up for the night. "For me, the stage has no boundaries," Arema says, stating the obvious. "The stage includes everything, even where the audience is sitting. I don't like that musicians have to sit far away from the audience. There has to be a spirit of complicity. Sometimes I feel like we form a bridge together, a bridge to some wonderful place."

We learn from her CV (which she provides for us in flawless English) that Arema Arega-Negussie Gonzalez was born on the 25th of July, 1979 in the Russian City of Voronezh to an Ethiopian father and a Cuban mother. She grew up in Havana and discovered music when she was 14 years old. She tells us she studied to be a painter "until one day a flood of songs came over me and I had to let them out."

Arema supports herself with her music and occasional illustrations for books and magazines. When she wants to write songs she heads for the Plaza de Armas in Habana Vieja. She plays and sings under the palms and ceibas, saving her ideas on a little digital recorder. If people happen to gather round to listen to her as they often do — well, she doesn't mind at all.

On one particularly memorable occasion, Arema's audience included Sting, who was visiting Havana in January 2007 and happened to be in the neighbourhood of the Plaza de Armas during one of Arema's practice sessions. Arema launched into a typically inspired, typically funky Cuban rap improv and was rewarded with a warm round of applause from the British pop star. She presented Sting with a CD of her music and he left saying he'd be in touch. One of those chance meetings that happen once in a lifetime, right? The only problem, Arema later realised, was that she had forgotten to leave Sting her phone number or any other way of contacting her. So much for the idea that a talent for self-promotion is one of Arema's gifts.

Fortunately, Arema got a second chance to take her music to an international audience when English producer Gilles Peterson came to town and asked her to appear on his latest Cuban compilation, Gilles Peterson Presents Havana Cultura: The Search Continues (Brownswood Recordings). The double CD collection features Arema on two outstanding tracks: her signature acoustic tune, "Ay"; and a romantic duet with rapper Alexey Rodriguez AKA El Tipo Este.