LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW HERE
“Music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”
Leonard Bernstein (1918 - 1990) US "composer, conductor"
worldbeatcanada: You get the sense that Alexis Puentes (aka Alex Cuba) can play anything that has strings and most things that don’t. I’ve seen him open for Angelique Kidjo, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar and a percussionist. Later, during her set, Ms Kidjo asked Alexis back on stage to join her band for a number, expecting him to pick up a guitar. Instead, he borrowed the bass player’s axe and proceeded to blow away the house, Angelique and everyone in the band with his funky grooves. As he was recording his second album, La Agua del Pozo, Alexis bought a vintage Gibson hollow body electric and found the voice that would characterize him … soulful, retro yet distinctly Cuban. With his instrumental voice defined, his persona became complete and now, with his third album, no title is needed, just a simple reintroduction of the artist known as Alex Cuba.
Alex Cuba: Hola, this is Alex Cuba, I hope you enjoy my new album. Gracias.
WBC: What did you discover when you found that old Gibson guitar?
AC: Have you seen a kid when the parents buy him a new toy? It was just like that! It was back in 2006 when I was doing La Agua del Pozo, and I asked my producer Joby Baker to find me a few guitars to choose from because I didn't know exactly what was going to be my sound and what guitar was going to give me the sound that I was hearing in my head. He managed to get about 5 guitars together and when I got to the studio I started opening the cases and when I saw this Gibson (it's an ES 125 from 1962) it just looked cool. I started playing it and Joby said, "Wait a minute. Let me plug you in." When he plugged it in it was like WOW, it's a whole new universe for me! Today I'm endorsed by Gibson in Canada, but I tell you I still have a long way to go because I don't stop experimenting on stage with various sounds and it's a fascinating world for me.
WBC: Are you feeling the momentum in what you’re doing, does it get you pumped up?
AC: I'm feeling that the music is getting to people and the image of Alex Cuba is getting to people. What Alex Cuba stands for is getting to people. Last night as I mentioned we had an incredible show, unbelievable. The amount of T-shirts we sold last night for example ... it has a great big picture of Alex Cuba right on the the front and people are proud to be wearing it. And, the most fascinating thing was the amount of different cultures together in that room; people from all sorts of backgrounds and countries. That's my dream, Cal. I knew when I came to Canada that music was a language. When I first set foot here I knew I didn't have the language to communicate yet but I had the music, which is a language. I remember talking with my brother (Adonis Puentes) and he said in perfect honesty without being negative, "Alex, we need to go to where people understand what we are doing. Here they will never get us. Nobody speaks Spanish. But, I thought different. I felt that if I went to the centres where people speak Spanish, musically I would get lost. I would get into whatever is happening in the area. Canada gave me the focus on the music. I'm still going to write beautiful songs, beautiful poetry and hopefully one day people are going to get it, because music is going to be my language. It's beautiful man!
WBC: So staying in Canada helped you to find your own voice and to break down barriers at the same time.
AC: Absolutely. I've been breaking so many rules of Cuban music man! The first one is that I play with a trio instead of a twelve-piece band. The three of us play and we sound like twenty on stage. That's my thing, doing more with less.
WBC: When you’re writing for others like your brother or recently for Nelly Furtado, do you just try to write strong material or are you trying to get in their head and write something reflective of them?
AC: In the case of Nelly, it was obvious that we needed to write something for her, because she is very strong is what she wants and what she looks for and she lets you know. But, that day when it came to doing Spanish, because the album (Mi Plan) is in Spanish and she's not fluent. She can speak a little bit, so it was up to me. She would say something like, "Can we talk about this very broad picture? Can we say this in the song?" Then I would have to go home a frame the picture according to what she had told me. It was fun. I enjoyed it a lot. But in this case, every song was written specifically for Nelly.
WBC: Is this self-titled album a reintroduction to the persona that is Alex Cuba, now that you’ve found your sound?
AC: Cal, it feels like I have arrived at a place where there is no turning back, there's no looking back, there are no preconceptions in my mind anymore. I feel as if I've done something of my own; something that is mine. I'm saying this because you have seen us from the beginning. It was too much in my mind, the thought that, "Oh, I'm from Cuba. I should be playing Cuban music so they understand what I am doing. And, later on down the road those things begin to wear out as you get used to your new country and you become stronger as an artist and in your identity. This album totally feels like that. It's Alex Cuba totally from beginning to end. it's not a question anymore of whether I come from Cuba; it's a question of whether it's good or bad music. And this is ... Alex Cuba (laughs).
WBC: This is Alex Cuba and it's worldbeatcanada radio on the pod. We have Alex Cuba in house and on the download. Connect with his world online at http://www.alexcuba.com/ . What’s your take on Cuban music today? If you recall almost ten years ago when we first met, Buena Vista Social Club was still going strong, urban groups like Orishas were springing up and it all seems to have tapered off a bit now. Is this just a calm between storms?
AC: Music is like fashion. Cuban music which is an amazing music that the world has come to know has managed to stay sort of there. But, you now find for example, promoters here who don't care if you're doing something original or not. They want something that they think is authentic. So, they go to Cuba and bring back ANY band from Cuba, right? And, that's authentic. It's not a question of good or bad. It's funny. So, as an artist I just have to close my eyes to that and keep going strong.
WBC: This album is loaded with great tracks and we’re going to be sharing all of them with our listeners but one in particular caught my ear on the first listen and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. It sounds like Lenny Kravitz went to Cuba. it’s called Que Pasa Lola. Can you tell me about this song?
AC: (laughs) I've been playing this song way before I recorded it. It's interesting how I've developed. I have held back recording simple songs because of this ... maybe it's a Cuban thing; I always felt my simplest songs just weren't good enough. This is the way Alex Cuba thought five years a go. So, there are songs on this album that I wrote ten years a go and my wife has been like, "You have to record this one!" But anyway, Que Pasa Lola came to me in a dream. It was like one-thirty in the morning and all of a sudden the riff wakes me up. This is Smithers, BC ... January ... minus twenty or something like that. i knew that I had to play really hard on my guitar because it was a rockin' track. I needed to bang on the guitar, right? But, my house is small and if I was going to play hard I'd wake everyone up. So what I did is grab the guitar and the keys, went outside and got into my car and drove away to a parking lot. I was banging away on the guitar in that parking lot for about two hours man. When I got home I had the song because I also took my tape recorder. Then I started playing it for family, and then I started playing it in shows and it instantly became people's favorite you know. But, definitely, it came to me in a dream and I've never written like that before. I hope that it happens more and more because it's fun!
Alex Cuba was interviewed by Cal Koat on November 11th 09 for worldbeatcanada radio