Alex Cuba wins big at Grammys!

🕔Dec 07, 2010

Alex Cuba’s normally buoyant ’fro is contained beneath a ball cap, his hair-pick poking from the back pocket of his baggy jeans, just as it does in the music video for his new single “Caballo”. He’s been recording music in his Smithers living room and gives one last, longing glance at his piano as he makes himself comfortable on the couch, patiently readying himself for my questions.

Clearly, he’s done this before.
In November, Alex won the Latin Grammy for Best New Artist, making him one of the first Canadians to bring such an award north of the border. The fact that he shared the honour with Nelly Furtado, who won Best Female Artist of the Year, must have brought its own personal satisfaction: Alex co-wrote a number of songs on the Canadian pop star’s most recent album, Mi Plan, and sang with Furtado on its title track.

Add to his recent success two Juno awards and Alex Cuba is clearly no stranger to the limelight. What is new for the musician is the consolidation of his varied life experiences—from small-town Cuba, rural northern BC and many places in between—into a maturity that’s reflected in his music.

The result is Smithers-based, Cuban-influenced, globally-infused—and all Alex Cuba.

“It took me a while to figure out who I was as an artist,” he says. “Until now there has been an element that has served me in reflecting where I come from.”

Born and raised in Artemisa, Cuba, a small city of 80,000 people, Alex Cuba’s journey has been guided, he would say, by the hand of a higher power. Born Alexis Puentes—a name he nowadays reserves for his home life—he was raised by musical parents and made his first television stage appearance at age four. In his teens, he studied guitar, tres (a Cuban stringed instrument), percussion and bass.

In his early days in Canada, he played with his twin brother, Adonis, as The Puentes Brothers. The pair lived in Victoria where they produced the 2001 album Morumba Cubana, which was nominated for the Juno Awards’ World Music Album of the Year.

Different directions
In time, the brothers realized they were heading in different directions and embarked on separate solo careers. Adonis moved to California, where he creates salsa music. Alex headed north, to his wife Sarah’s hometown of Smithers.

“You cannot put me in a genre,” he says about the decision to forge his own path. “We realized we had different identities. It was time to come apart.”

From Smithers, he produced two more albums—Humo De Tabaco and Agua Del Pozo—and subsequently landed two Juno Awards, in 2006 and 2008, both for World Music Album of the Year.

“I’m proud to have been able to do what I’ve done from Smithers,” he says. “I’m proud because I’ve come to terms with my life. I’m proud that I chose this place to live, the people I’ve met here.”

Although he has consistently travelled back to Cuba to record elements, such as horns and percussion, to accompany his music, increasingly he feels grounded here in Canada and, in particular, Smithers.

“I feel Canada has embraced me from the beginning,” he says. “The thing about Alex Cuba and putting together all that information into something we can call a song is how I manage to do it. It’s because of the soil beneath my feet. It’s because I’m in Canada, I think.

“People say Canada is too cold, but I think Cuba is too hot. Cuba is way too hot and you’re gonna get burned, man.”

He describes Canada as laid-back, which is a state of mind that resonates with the easy-going singer. It’s a place in life he feels he’s just now reached, bringing his music with him.

“That to me is maturity. That is patience in life. And that’s in my music,” he says. “That is something we call God. He brought me here.”

Small-town boy
In rural northern BC, it’s safe to say that he stands out with his untamed afro, mutton chops and funky style. Being Alex Cuba in the North took an adjustment period, he admits. When he first arrived in Smithers, the singer sheared his signature ’do, choosing to ease into his new northern life rather than spring his look upon unsuspecting locals.

“It was kind of for respect more than anything else,” he reflects. “Now I feel that people almost expect it from me, to have a distinctive look.”

After seven years in the North, he has become an important element in the unique Smithers mosaic. As his son Owen, 4, crawls onto his father’s lap, Alex tells me about his son Daniel, 14, conveniently attending high school just down the road and daughter Rose, 8, at another school nearby.

Unlike those who have left the region to pursue careers under big city lights, Alex has chosen to stay—and makes it work. “If you want something you have to go get it,” he explains. “It works because of the way I think of the world. Because I’ve learned to be everywhere.”

At the moment, he is simultaneously working in Miami, Spain, Mexico and England, which means some travel, but mostly a lot of Skype time.

“All you need is a high-speed connection on your computer, and go for it,” he says, adding that working globally is much easier today than it would have been 10 years ago. When he’s on the road, his family has gotten used to having him present via webcam. “I talk to them three, maybe four times a day.”

And when he’s home, Smithers becomes his retreat. Although he enjoys big cities in small doses, Alex admits he’s a small-town boy at heart.

“In a small town you seem to know most people you run into. You know all the faces and the names. It gives you a sense of community,” he says.

Fusion and combustion
Although consistently pigeonholed as “world music,” Alex says his style was internationally influenced from a young age—starting when he was eight or nine years old and first heard Michael Jackson. He fell in love with pop music.

“American influence got to me in my music very early,” he says, noting that genres like ‘jazz’ and ‘world’ can be somewhat inaccessible for the public and often lead to dead-end musical careers. “From the beginning I knew I needed to do something that was somewhat commercial and would let people in.”

Perhaps, rather than trying to define Alex Cuba’s music, it’s easier to define him by what he isn’t: he isn’t a cultural icon; he isn’t the static stereotype of a Cuban singer, placed behind museum glass; he isn’t playing subway stations and street-corners in traditional Cuban garb hoping to remind people of the sunny beaches, cigars and mojitos they enjoyed on their last vacation.

“I realized very early when I came to Canada that if I was to plant a mango seed it wouldn’t grow,” he says, noting that, conversely, an apple seed won’t grow in Cuba. “I took a little piece of the mango seed and a little piece of the apple seed, putting them together and producing something that grows here and grows there.”

Although his Canadian legacy has largely been as a world music singer, his recent Grammy win—for Best New Artist and Best Male Vocal Pop Artist—could be the tipping point for a career that has been on an upward trajectory for the past decade. Alex is just the second Canadian nominated for a Latin Grammy, he says.

But already he’s looking ahead. Right now, Alex is putting together music for his next album, which will be recorded in the spring and is expected out late 2011. His lofty goal is to have three songs perfectly translated—and recorded—in both English and Spanish. Two are already written.

“They are more in with what the people get from Alex Cuba—that peaceful almost ancient-sounding voice,” he says, noting this album will be the personification of the identity he has so recently confirmed. “When you are creative, I guess you never stop the search. You always push your limits.”