B.C. singer-songwriter Alex Cuba sets sights on Grammys

 

 
 
 
 
Grammy-nominated B.C. artist Alex Cuba plays the Kay Meek Centre on Feb. 6.
 
 

Grammy-nominated B.C. artist Alex Cuba plays the Kay Meek Centre on Feb. 6.

Photograph by: Chelsea Brooke Roisum, Chelsea Brooke Roisum

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Alex Cuba

Feb. 6, 8 p.m. | Kay Meek Centre, West Vancouver

Tickets: Sold out

On his first visit to Canada in 1995, Alexis Puentes spent 85 days touring the country, going from Victoria to Halifax with a five-piece band that included his father Valentin and brother Adonis.

The trip marked the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relationships between Cuba and Canada.

Halfway through the trip, Puentes was on a 36-hour stretch between Winnipeg and Toronto riding a Greyhound bus when it hit him, admiring the landscape of the Canadian Shield.

“It was early hours in the morning, and most of us were sleeping on the bus,” Puentes said in a recent phone interview with The Vancouver Sun. “I woke up. I look ahead of me and I see something amazing. My father was sitting next to me and I woke him up and I said, ‘Hey, look at that! It’s beautiful.’ Whatever was grabbing me — I think it was a frozen lake or something — I was fascinated with. He said, ‘That’s beautiful, but there’s nothing more beautiful than the Cuban landscape.’ And I said, ‘Dad, I think that’s more beautiful. I’m sorry but I’m in love with that.’”

Puentes was in love in more ways than one. On the same tour, he met his soon-to-be wife Sarah in Vancouver. She was a university student involved as a volunteer with setting up their show.

“It was a very powerful moment that would shape my entire life,” Puentes said. “We met in March and that same year in December we got married.”

Puentes was 21. The couple celebrated 20 years of marriage last year.

They first spent some time in Cuba before moving back to Canada. They made their way to Vancouver Island, landing first in Victoria, then relocating to Smithers, where they’ve lived for almost a decade.

“Something in me wanted to come to North America — to take a turn at expressing myself away from my culture, looking at my country from a different point (of view). I always thought I had something in me bigger than my own culture. And I wanted somehow to have a chance at that,” he said.

“I feel nothing has been forced here for me, that I came to the right place.”

THAT LATIN FEELING

As Alex Cuba, Puentes has made Canada his home, and he has in turn injected a bit of himself into the musical fabric of North America.

His fifth album Healer won Cuba a Best Singer-Songwriter Album award at the Latin Grammys, and for the second time in his career has been nominated for Best Latin Pop Album at the Grammy Awards, to be held Feb. 15 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Cuba was also nominated for Best Latin Pop Album at the Grammys in 2011 with his third — and self-titled — album. He has four wins to his name at the Latin Grammys, including Best New Artist (2010), Best Tropical Song (2012) and Best Short Form Music Video (2013).

On the Canadian side of the border, Cuba has two Juno Awards to his name, earned in the World Music Album category: for 2006’s Humo De Tabaco and 2008’s Agua Del Pozo. Healer was nominated in that same category for the 2016 Juno Awards, which will be handed out April 3.

Still an independent artist with limited exposure in the U.S. beyond being known for his co-songwriting work with Nelly Furtado, landing in a major category at the Grammys this year took Puentes by surprise.

“We did (the album) on a smaller scale, less people involved,” Puentes said. “I was pleased with the record, I’m in love with it, but my expectations were maybe not that high. I just wanted to do an album with a little bit of a lower tone. And all of a sudden it starts getting nominations, poking up here and there. It was an incredible lesson. It left me with a feeling of gratitude and a feeling of honesty.

“It’s important when we do what we do to do it for the right reasons,” he added. “There is so much out there, and it’s really hard for a lot of people to find the music that artists are still willing to put out there with the only intention of creating art. It’s not a secret that all the outlets we have at our disposal, like the Internet, is shortening our attention span. People seem to be more responsive these days to whatever is more striking. My intention has always been to create art — I do what I do because it’s almost a necessity of the soul.”

“Soul” is a great word to describe Healer.

After the rocking bite of his previous album Ruido En El Sistema (“static in the system”), where Puentes made a buzzier bid for a wider appeal, hoping to break away from tags like “Latin pop” and “world music,” Healer returns Alex Cuba to a smooth, positive, genre-bending zone.

Special guests abound on Healer: David Myles, Ron Sexsmith, Alejandra Ribera, Kuba Oms and Anya Marina all take turns supporting Puentes on an album produced by celebrated Quebec studio mastermind Jean Massicotte (Lhasa, Thomas Hellman, Patrick Watson).

Puentes’s Latin roots shine on Healer, but so do the many North American influences that have come to layer his musical canvas.

“I’m isolated, in a remote community in the beautiful town of Smithers, B.C. — isolated from the Latin world present in the United States. I have to say that what I have found in this little corner of the planet is concentration,” he said.

“I have found that incorporating the environment in which I live and mixing that with my roots, my Cuban roots, it produces a different kind of Latin music — enough, in a good way, that the Grammys pay attention to it. I believe it’s because of that. I’ve been called an alien, somebody from outer space — ‘How do you make your music sound like that?’”

THE VOICE OF CUBA

It’s interesting to look at Healer through the lens of normalization of diplomatic relationships between the U.S. and Cuba.

The process began by removing Cuba from the United States’ “terrorist sponsor” list, and then took hold by reopening the U.S. embassy in Havana on July 1, 2015.

“I have no doubt there has to be some sort of connection (between Healer and the politics of Cuba and the U.S.),” Puentes said. “Really, there is no coincidence any more. Things happen for a reason and we’re able to see every day those reasons very quickly. The main thing from the title is understanding what music has done to me and to celebrate that: Music has been my healer, my saviour, a force of inspiration.”

When asked what this could mean for his family in Cuba and for himself, he said: “I don’t see that as a simple process — let’s just sign some papers and we do it all tomorrow. Also I’m hoping the Cuban government allows it to go slow rather than open the gates and then, there you go, the country goes out the window. But in all means of love and unity it is something beautiful to see: two governments that have been fighting for years trying to make things right.

“If they take the time and they’re thinking right and the U.S. is for once doing this without a (background) strategy that nobody knows yet, it means the United States is beginning to make peace with the world.”

fmarchand@postmedia.com

twitter.com/FMarchandVS

 
 
 
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Grammy-nominated B.C. artist Alex Cuba plays the Kay Meek Centre on Feb. 6.
 

Grammy-nominated B.C. artist Alex Cuba plays the Kay Meek Centre on Feb. 6.

Photograph by: Chelsea Brooke Roisum, Chelsea Brooke Roisum

 
Grammy-nominated B.C. artist Alex Cuba plays the Kay Meek Centre on Feb. 6.
Grammy-nominated B.C. artist Alex Cuba plays the Kay Meek Centre on Feb. 6.
Grammy-nominated B.C. artist Alex Cuba plays the Kay Meek Centre on Feb. 6.
Grammy-nominated B.C. artist Alex Cuba plays the Kay Meek Centre on Feb. 6.
Grammy-nominated B.C. artist Alex Cuba plays the Kay Meek Centre on Feb. 6.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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