This past Friday, Cuban-Canadian singer and songwriter Alex Cuba performed at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre (PAC), to a crowd of excited fans. Cuba, born Alexis Puentes, grew up in Artemisa, Cuba where the art of music was instilled in him from a young age. He learned guitar at the age of six, and enjoyed a music infused life with his father (respected guitarist and teacher Valentin Puentes) and twin brother. He went on to study guitar and bass and was interested in the jazz-fusion style of music. Both him and his brother moved to Canada in 1999, and since arriving, Cuba has seen great success in his career.
Cuba’s music career began with a collaborative project between him and his twin brother Adonis. As a duo, the two were known as The Puentes Brothers, and worked together from 2001-2003, releasing an album — Morumba Cubana — before deciding to pursue solo careers in 2004. It became evident that the brothers’ musical styles differed greatly, and though their creative differences drove them apart, they continued to regularly collaborate on songwriting.
“We separated to develop what we thought were our artistic identities; we were different musically,” said Cuba. “We had only played together in Cuba when we were kids — my brother was a salsa singer and I was a jazz musician — so it felt natural to come together when we came to Canada. However, we had creative differences and therefore needed to pursue and develop them.”
Cuba’s debut solo album, Humo De Tobaco, was a huge success, earning him a Juno Award for World Music Album of the Year in 2006. The album also featured two collaborations with high profile musicians, Ron Sexsmith and Corinne Bailey Rae. His follow-up album Agua Del Pozo earned him a second World Music Album of the Year Juno in 2007, and his third release, a self-titled album, was met with national and international praise. With his humble personality, and passionate outlook on music, Cuba doesn’t take any of his success for granted.
“It’s a blessing,” said Cuba. “One day in your life, more when you’re young, you say ‘I’m choosing this path for the rest of life’. That is a huge decision so to have it pay off is beautiful.”
Cuba’s third album was a turning point in his career. It featured his first recorded English track “If You Give Me Love”, and landed him two Latin Grammy awards, including a win for Best New Artist. His success at the Latin Grammy’s was followed by a nomination for Best Latin Pop Album at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards.
His fifth studio album Healer signaled a change in musical style for Cuba. Swapping out the usual heavy horn accompaniments listeners had come to expect, Cuba opted for guitars and vocal harmonies this time around – the live rhythm section gives the album a live feel, something Cuba believes is important when playing shows, as it helps him and his band sound truer to their recorded selves. Listeners can expect a fun, upbeat, soulful, bilingual album with funk, jazz and pop all rolled into one.
“The songs felt complete. They had everything in them I wanted,” explained Cuba. “I tried to go as deep into them as I could. I felt that these types of songs have very little things around them, but they were still able to tell the story. When I decided to change the sound of the album I thought, ‘cool it’s going to bring a change’ and I welcome any change that will make me sound just like how the album does when I’m on stage. In my previous albums, I would record with Cuban horn players who, in my opinion are the best in the world, but on stage we wouldn’t be able to bring them with us, and it made the songs sound different. With this album I wanted to be more honest with what we put on stage.”
Healer features a handful of collaborations including Canadians; Ron Sexsmith, David Myles, Alejandra Ribera and Kuba Oms; as well as New Yorker, Anya Marina. Collaborations are something Cuba is no stranger to. In 2009, Cuba co-wrote more than half the songs on Nelly Furtado’s album Mi Plan. He cites working with Furtado as an eye-opening experience that molded him into the intuitive songwriter he is today.
“When I started working with Nelly [Furtado] I had started my own album too, so I was working on two things at once. Nelly got deep into her recording so I put my music aside to help her,” explained Cuba. “I was influenced by her approach to how things should feel. It was a positive experience in the beginning, but then I started feeling lost and it scared me. I had to put up lines between the two of us. She is a pop artist, there’s no doubt about that, but I see myself as a creator and once I realized that I was able to see more clearly. It was a wonderful exercise to learn from her and the experience. You can only be intuitive when you can be in touch with yourself.”
Since January, Cuba has played 13 shows (nine of which sold out), all while managing to fit a two week trip back to his home country, where he shot a documentary featuring unknown artists everywhere from Havana to Santiago. Cuba describes his shows as fun and loving, and he is always in awe of just how many people know about him and his music.
“The repertoire we play connects with people,” said Cuba. “The atmospheres of the shows are really fun, there’s lots of joking, and beautiful vibes in the air. You don’t need to know how to dance to enjoy one of my shows. I love when people are seated and mesmerized by my music. It’s enjoyable as an artist because you never know how long you can go without being recognized on a larger scale.”
Cuba is proud of the bilingual content that’s featured on his newest album, as it’s something that hasn’t been done much in Canadian music. The break from the conventional sounds that make up most of the Latin music landscape, combined with sweet melodies, pop-soul hooks and powerful guitar riffs, all work to highlight Cuba’s talent and vast musical vision.
Assistant Arts & Culture Editor