The standard legend of the immigrant musician is a sad one, a tragic tale of leaving friends and family and native tongue behind, of venturing out into the unknown and—if the performer in question hails from warmer climes—of dealing with the harsh realities of the Canadian winter.
That’s not the story Alex Cuba wants told.
Yes, there are probably things that the singer-songwriter, born Alexis Puentes, regrets leaving behind on the shores of the Caribbean island that gave him his stage name, but his is not a story of loss.
“For me, it’s been a story of gaining,” he stresses, checking in on his cellphone from the northern B.C. community of Smithers, where he’s lived for the past 15 years. “I became a singer-songwriter, a producer, a musician in Canada. Canada has given me an identity, as funny as it can sound. I know to many Canadians it’s mind-blowing to hear that somebody who came from Cuba needed to find an identity; some people can’t put those two things together.
“I’ve seen a lot of interviews with immigrants that focus only on loss, you know, omitting the Canadian side,” he continues. “But my story is a little bit different, and I hope people will get that, because I am incredibly proud to talk about my Canadian side, what I’ve done here.…Because my music was made in Canada. No Latin artist in the Latin world can sound like me, because they don’t have this Canadian side that I have. They don’t have the situations, the inspirations, et cetera, that I have found in this country. For me, it’s been a huge, positive story, and it’s too sad, sometimes, when people just want to hear the sad things.
I understand where that comes from, but come on, man! We choose to live in the present time, and we are going to talk happily.”
The biggest challenge with life in Canada, for Cuba, was realizing that this is, as he says, “a guitar culture”. That prompted him to add electric instruments to the Spanish-style nylon-string preferred in the Caribbean, and to adopt more of a narrative voice, in line with the Canadian songwriting tradition of Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, and the Tragically Hip.
“In Cuba,” he explains, “sometimes it’s all about the rhythm; it’s all about making you move, physically. But Canada, it’s different. It’s about making you move mentally, maybe making you move spiritually. You know what I mean? That inspired me to create that way, to incorporate that into my music—to pay more attention to the way I craft my music, my melodies, how many instruments I have on an album, et cetera, et cetera. It has given me a sound.”
If Cuba sounds like a cheerleader for Canada, Canada has also been cheering for him. His six solo albums have, between them, won two Juno awards and four nominations—and that, in turn, has propelled him to greater international acclaim. His most recent LP, Lo Único Constante, garnered the energetic musician his third Grammy nomination, and he’s starting to take his music into terrain where he’s likely to find an even larger and more enthusiastic audience—a case in point being this spring’s Carnaval tour, in which he’ll join forces with the highly political, Kansas City–based Latin rock band Making Movies for a series of dates across North America.
“I met them a few years ago,” he says of Making Movies, the headlining act. “I was playing a show in Chicago, I think it was, and they were opening the show, and then we played together last year—in Vienna, I think it was—and we reconnected. It’s purely based on that musical connection: they love what I do, and I think what they do is something very good, musically. So, yes, that’s what brings us together.
“We’re going to be performing for a lot of people that understand Spanish, that understand the power of my words,” he continues. “This has been happening for me in Mexico, as well. I’ve been playing solo shows down there; the last one I did, I played for 2,000 people on my own, and it was unbelievable—all those people singing my songs. I felt like a kid, you know? Like I wanted to play nonstop for four hours. It was beautiful!”
While you’d expect that the warmth of that reception might have Cuba thinking of pulling up stakes yet again, the singer-guitarist says that he remains committed to wintering in Smithers. “This year was hard and cold and we had to shovel our roof—that’s how much snow we got,” he admits, laughing. “But normally, I’m completely adjusted. I love jumping in the hot tub in the winter and then rolling in the snow, and sometimes I just lie in the snow to see how long I can stay there before having to jump back into the hot tub.
“It’s fun!” he adds—and fun doesn’t get much more Canadian than that.
Carnaval, featuring Making Movies and Alex Cuba, comes to the Biltmore Cabaret on Friday (May 18).