OTTAWA — Alex Cuba’s father told him he couldn’t be a singer. This most unlikely of Canadian music stars not only proved him wrong, he’s become a globally celebrated artist in the past two years — even though you’re not likely to hear his songs on 102.7 the Edge or other well-known radio stations in Toronto.
Cuba sings in Spanish and while you’ll find all kinds of popular songs out there that seem to turn the English language into something alien, getting a radio director to take a chance on a single with foreign lyrics is as tough as getting U.S. politicians to agree on fiscal reform. So despite winning two Junos, a Latin Grammy for Best New Artist in 2010 and earning a Grammy nomination this year, Cuba remains one of the most anonymous music stars in Canada.
Not that he’s complaining. The native of the Havana suburb of Artemisa insists he would still be playing bass in and around Cuba’s capital if he didn’t decide to emigrate 12 years ago. He and his wife, a Canadian, relocated to British Columbia in 1999, a move Cuba called liberating when I spoke to him in his trailer prior to his recent performance at the 2011 Ottawa Bluesfest.
“I got to a point where I felt trapped. My voice in Cuba is not a traditional voice. My dad even told me, ‘Alex, you’re not a singer,’” said Cuba, whose given name is Alexis Puentes. “Back in Cuba the common voice is big, bright like a trumpet and it has to be that way to command a 16-piece band. If you have a smoky voice, a baritone voice — which speaks to a lot of people — in Cuba it’s like you’re not so good.”
Cuba didn’t just come to Canada and play traditional music from his homeland. What’s earned him acclaim and what makes his music something you should give a listen to is his songwriting ability. His music has pop and rock melodies that appeal to Western ears, which helps break down the language barrier of his lyrics. It’s a dynamic that Cuba intended.
“Canada made me focus on the quality of the song, in the tune, how meaningful the music is,” said the soft-spoken, focused musician. “Where in Cuba, most music is based on the arrangement, about how tight the band sounds; it’s not really about the tune.”
Cuba, who was born in 1974, says anglophones are getting it.
“The most incredible thing has happened to me. I’ve heard people come up to me and say my music makes them cry or makes them so happy, and they don’t even speak Spanish,” he said, grinning.
Watching his show, you notice how many in the crowd know his songs. They sing-a-long, filling the air in mellifluous Spanish. A fine guitar player, too, Cuba keeps you riveted with riffs that ping off his strings like classical chords and facial expressions that reveal his passion for his music. He’s backed by drummer Max Senitt and bassist David Marion, who are as energetic as the frontman. While more and more Canadians are taking to his songs, Cuba has long been a fan of Canada.
“I can say I know most of the country now,” he said. “I would like to play more in Nova Scotia. For some reason, there is something there in the people. They have this love of music and they’re very honest. If the music is good, the audience is going to be great.”
Recognizable by his trademark afro, Cuba is proudly Canadian. He says the decision to come to Canada was pivotal to his growth as a musician.
“We all immigrate for different reasons. I have friends from Guatemala and Chile, places like that, where they had to leave their countries because they were going to be killed if they stayed. So if you immigrate like that, chances are you’re never going to get adjusted to the new country. You weren’t looking forward to going to a new country, you were forced. In my case, I left Cuba because I was lucky enough to meet the woman of my life, my wife, and after living in Cuba for two-and-a-half years together, we decided to go to Canada, and it was because I wanted to express myself musically.”
When he returns to Cuba, he says his music is now recognized despite the cultural bias against deep voices like his. “My art as a whole is convincing them,” he said, “and now my dad is my biggest fan.”
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