Alexis Puentes

🕔Jun 07, 2006

Ever heard of Eleggua? He’s considered one of the most important orishas, or saints, of Santería, a religion that evolved in Cuba when West African slaves and their descendants ingeniously camouflaged and fused their ancient beliefs with the Catholic religion of the Spanish colonists.

Santería is still widely practiced in Cuba, and by more than a million people around the world. Eleggua, the orisha, possesses a sacred rhythm which can sweep listeners up into ecstatic dancing. He presides over pathways, crossroads and, especially, doors.

As you might expect, Eleggua is pretty low in the public awareness in small, white-bread towns of northern B.C. But if you’re fortunate enough to be swept up into a performance by one of Eleggua’s devotees—Alexis Puentes—you might well be feeling his influence indirectly.

Puentes, a Cuban-born multi-instrumentalist from Smithers, has just scored a Juno award for the Best World Music Album of the Year. And the speed at which doors are opening for Puentes, who’s pushing sophisticated Cuban sounds into the mainstream, hints that something divine is at work.

It was only 10 years ago, at age 22, that Alexis first set foot in Canada to tour with his brother and father in Quintet Los Puentes. At one of their gigs, a lovely Latin American studies major caught Alexis’s eye. After a little coaching from a friend, he blurted out, in his then-limited English, “I like you. Do you like me?”

“Say it in Spanish,” replied the amused student, in Spanish she’d honed during her own studies in Mexico. The student was Sarah Goodacre of Smithers. The chemistry was hot; within months he’d whisked Sarah back to Cuba and, without much effort, convinced her to marry him.

He emigrated to Canada, where he aspired to getting work, initially, as “someone’s bass player.” They settled in Victoria, BC near Alexis’s gregarious, equally musical twin, Adonis Puentes. The two brothers formed the Puentes Brothers, a band which played Cuban standards and originals composed in traditional styles,. Their critically-acclaimed debut CD Morumba Cubana earned them a Juno nomination in 2001, a West Coast Music Award, and a National Independent Music Award.

But for Alexis something didn’t quite fit. The two brothers have always had different approaches to music: Adonis was primarily a salsa singer, animated by music with a very traditional Cuban feel. Alexis’s knowledge and appreciation of traditional genres is vast, but he’s in love with jazz and intrigued by pop.

And although he’s always had a sweet voice, it was pretty much relegated to the background: since childhood, he’d been told by his father that he should leave the lead singing to Adonis.

Fast forward to April 2, 2006. Alexis, who now heads up his solo project The Alex Cuba Band, felt a warm rush of pleasure as the band’s debut CD Humo de Tabaco was announced Best World Music Album at Canada’s Juno Awards ceremony in Halifax.

“It felt amazing,” he remembers. In a short speech, he thanked God, his family, his wife, his musical collaborators, and dedicated the award to all Cuban musicians in Canada.

Although he doesn’t give up this information easily, he wasn’t that surprised about the award. Why? Because Alexis Puentes has finally arrived at a place where he knows who he is, musically and spiritually.

“I’ve discovered a whole universe in Canada,” he says, sipping a latte in Smithers, where he and Sarah now live with their children Rose, three, and Daniel, nine.

He reflects on the factors, outside of his extraordinary musical talent and skills, that made that discovery possible.

From the Puentes kids’ earliest years in Artemisa, a town about 60 km from Havana where they grew up, they were immersed in music. Alexis recalls his first stage appearance, on national TV at the tender age of four. He played claves (a percussion instrument) in an orchestra of 24 guitarists, directed by his music-instructor father.

Alexis went on to study acoustic guitar, tres, percussion and bass, which he remembers playing eight hours a day during his teens.

Political conditions created an extraordinarily rich musical environment. In post-1959 Cuba, U.S. recording companies had long since departed. In their wake, the Cuban government offered generous support for the preservation and development of Cuban culture. State-sponsored cultural centres dotted the landscape, and music instruction and instruments were offered free.

It was not unusual for Cuban greats such as Ibrahim Ferrer and Juan de Marcos Gonzalez (both made famous internationally by Ry Cooder’s award-winning Buena Vista Social Club) to drop into Puentes family jam sessions. “Those guys were like gods to us,” remembers Alexis.

With the basics taken care of and a vibrant cultural environment around him, Alexis maintains that he grew up free of political angst. “My father was a member of the Communist party, but he never taught us about the politics of Communism,” he says. “Instead, he taught us the politics of human relationships: how to treat people.”

This, says Alexis, is why his music—incubated though it was in a political hot zone—is virtually free of political content. “I just don’t have any need to go there,” he says. The lyrics of songs on Humo de Tabaco are sweet, peaceful and positive, exploring themes like love, memory, celebration, and seduction. “I’m at peace with my life, and that’s how I want people to feel listening to my music.”

But Alexis is also quick to say that the influence of politics on Cuba’s musical evolution is not completely positive. In his view, political isolation and the country’s inward focus have propelled musicianship in Cuba to extraordinary levels of sophistication. So why is that a problem?

“Music standards in Cuba have become so high,” he explains. “Musicians are making music not for audiences but for each other. Instead of a fusion of styles, it’s more like confusion…. or at least, something that only Cubans understand.”

In Alexis’s view, contemporary Cuban music needs to reconnect with audiences by stepping back from excessive displays of technical skill, and by rediscovering its soul.

“There is genius in simplicity,” he says.

Soul, simplicity: these are principles that he’s rediscovered in Canada. They’ve helped him separate his musical path from that of his brother. They’ve propelled him to go head-to-head with Cuban expectations that vocals should be bright and loud—by letting his own voice occupy centre stage in his Humo de Tabaco.

Departing from Cuban music norms to follow his own path appears to be paying off. Music critics describe Alexis’s voice as intimate, “lightly smoky” and “like a warm gentle breeze.”

Although no less Cuban or contemporary than Alexis himself, Humo de Tabaco offers a harmonious blend of soul and simplicity, which probably explains its appeal even to audiences who don’t ordinarily seek out Cuban music. It’s a very technically accomplished blend of nueva trova, jazz, mambo, pop, and the rhythmic Cuban dance music called son. But it also bears the fresh, natural quality that music-lovers around the world responded to in the Buena Vista Social Club.

In fact, Alexis recorded most of Tabaco with seasoned Cuban musicians at Havana’s Egrem studios, which Buena Vista and many other Cuban greats have made legendary. He opened the door to spontaneity by avoiding the common practice of rehearsing songs until they are note-perfect before entering the studio.

“We played the songs maybe three times together before we started recording,” he relates. He was thrilled with the results, and so were renowned Tabaco contributors like Ron Sexsmith, and Cuban stars Pancho Amat and Chucho Valdes.

For Alexis, rediscovering the value of simplicity and soul in music comes down to having the courage to be who he is, wherever he is.

“When I first moved to Smithers, I wondered if I’d made a mistake,” he recalls, admitting that a sense of being “out of context” led to a decision then to shave off his high-volume afro. But the conservative haircut, and the doubts, didn’t last long. “I realized I couldn’t just wait for some Hollywood-style miracle to happen, or some manager to do this for me,” he says.

Alexis started calling promoters, getting his music in front of the right people. He learned how to negotiate, securing appearances on prominent stages in North America and Japan. With Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith, he co-wrote and recorded Lo Mismo Que Yo, a single which climbed to the top 10 on British charts in 2005.

He sought legal advice to draft good contracts, and assembled a suitable band. The Juno award was the icing on an already sweet cake: he’s signed a generous, four-record deal with Sony ATV Music, and he’s planning to release his next CD early in 2007.

“Smithers has taught me that you can do anything you want, from anywhere,” he says.

Crediting the support of his wife, Sarah, and the spiritually grounding influence of his own practice of Santeria, Alexis feels more in touch with his creative process than ever. He’s sure that the musical inspiration which comes to him at any time are gifts from the divine. “Where else could they come from but heaven?”

“I treat them with respect,” he says, explaining that if he doesn’t have a tape recorder with him when inspirations appear, he sings melodies into his cell phone voice-mail—or calls home to leave a singing message on his answering machine so they’re not forgotten.

Like Eleggua, the orisha he’s come to identify with, Alexis Puentes is tuned to his own sacred rhythm. He sees many more than one path to success. And if the Juno win and a major recording deal is any indication, doors will be opening for him for some time to come.

© Larissa Ardis 2006