Sublime moments with Alex Cuba

Finding the Sublime with Alex Cuba.

It was chilly in Smithers, B.C., Alex Cuba said, on the day of this interview. But after 18 years in the city, he’s used to all that.

That’s he’s touring his latest album Sublime in Eastern Canada in January, well there’s a method to his madness.

“I figured a few years ago a lot of people in Canada run away to Mexico and Cuba. I also figured a lot stayed because they can’t go. So somebody has to warm them up.”

There’s little doubt that Cuba’s version of Latin music brings the heat.

Sublime is an interesting record features duets with several Latin stars including Kelvis Ochoa, Silvana Estrada, Leonel Garcia, Omara Portuondo, Alex Ferreira, Pablo Milanés and Fernando Osorio.

While that’s cool, it’s something else that makes this record pretty special.

It’s that Cuba played all the instruments on the record himself.

But his decision to do this wasn’t a way to save some cash. It was a question of sound and vibe.

“When I started doing demos in my little studio/garage, I started catching a vibe. I was listening to it and going ‘Oh my God, how am I going to use this with musicians’.”

After the third or fourth demo, he decided “this album was meant for all of it to be done by me so I’m going to do it.

“It is one of the best decisions I ever made. It was a beautiful creative decision. Today I can look back on it and feel really good about it.”

His fans know of his skill as a singer, songwriter and with guitar and bass guitar, but percussion?

“It was the hardest thing to play. Congas need a sound. I practiced before going into the studio in Gibson’s B.C. with producer John ‘Beetle’ Bailey.

“I did all the percussion in one day and when I was done I was in pain. I had blood blisters in my hands. The guys in the studio gave me ice packs for my hands. But I was so proud of it when I was done.”

The pain was worth it, he said. “I did congas and shakers and other instruments. I created a bass drum on the low conga.” He made the bass drum sounds by hitting the drum with his fist.

Throughout the process, Cuba said, producer Bailey was the facilitator.

“Every crazy idea I had in the studio, he made it work.”

Cuba’s vibe is the product of his evolution as a musician and performer in Canada.

“Coming from Cuba, I have felt myself grow and gain musical maturity in Canada. In Cuba, we are very dense musically because it’s a cultural thing. People choose to be that way. Very few people give space to the songs and to the instruments.”

In Canada, his musical journey has been to become simpler, more minimalist and mature.

“It has been a very different journey. I came to Canada as a bass player. Now I am the songwriter, the singer, the bass player, the arranger and all of that. I look at music in a 360 way now.”

As for the vibe on Sublime, “I knew these songs were delicate. If I was to put them into the hands of other musicians I knew that I wasn’t going to find the simplicity that I was looking for.”

This process of simplifying has been very rewarding Cuba said. The result is something that sounds simple but in reality is very complicated.

“It’s so beautiful when people, especially Cubans try to play my music. They say ‘It’s so simple. I can do it.’ And then they start digging and they realize it’s actually pretty hard.”

This complex simplicity is now on the road. He’ll be in Ottawa on Jan. 17 at the National Arts Centre and the shows now feature other musicians.

The focus in the shows continues to be on simplicity and to “look for those moments that have momentum and create memories.”

But to reach this balance, the band spent more time than usual rehearsing the music on Sublime.

“I have two musicians in the band from Smithers — the bass player (Ian Olmstead) and a second guitar player (Zack Windle). This for first time in my career. He’s a really young guy and I’ve trained him. It’s beautiful to see how fluent he has become playing my Cuban-Canadian Latin music.

“The three of us rehearsed for three weeks before we brought in percussionist Jose Sanchez and then we rehearsed with him for another week.” Cuba has also added drummer Alain Borgé for the tour.

His success in winning Latin Grammys has helped open doors for Cuba and that’s evident on this album. He was able to convince some pretty important people to join forces with him, people like Pablo Milanés, the emerging star Silvana Estrada and the legendary Omara Portuondo.

“I wrote the song Y Si Manana and when I started to think about collaborations I thought of (Omara).

“I have been lucky to be recognized now in the industry” so when he approached Portuondo she agreed readily.

“She came into the studio and we started rehearsing. I had a guitar with me and I had printed the lyrics out and she kept making fun of my lyrics..”

It was a “What the hell” moment. Portuondo was 88 at the time.

“She was unstoppable. She kept looking at me with a funny look. I had a blast. And when it was done, I was asked to write for an album she is putting together.” It may be her last album. She was in Ottawa this past summer on a farewell tour.

A Cuban magazine recently  reviewed Sublime favourably adding that “this song with me is one of Omara’s favourites and that her voice sounds the purest.” He’s proud of that.

Cuba builds on the great tradition of Cuban music.

“I was fortunate enough to have been exposed to such great music in a great time in an era in Cuban and Latin music starting with my father (Valentin Puentes), who exposed me to the music he knew. I am very grateful for that.

“I’m bringing this tradition into the 21st century with my own spin to it. All I can say is they were great teachers for me. I am honoured to be singing with some of them.”

Still, he says, “my music would not have been the same if life had chosen a different place for me to go to.

“Canada is such a humble beautiful country that even when I didn’t have a Latin audience, I felt excited about making music here because of the people around me.

“I learned from Canada to make the kind of music that doesn’t attack people and that invites people. That is opposite of most of the Latin music made in the world.

“When people listen to me in Latin America they can’t comprehend why I sound the way I sound. My answer is always because I have embraced Canada and that’s what they hear in my music.”

Cuba spent four years in Victoria before moving to Smithers.

“We just had our second kid and I had started to travel quite a bit. My wife was staying behind and alone. It was clear being close to family would be beneficial. It was either Cuba or Smithers. I chose Smithers. Many friends in industry thought that would be end of career. It was pretty much the beginning of it. The moment I landed here I felt calm and felt myself.”

Alex Cuba
Where: Babs Asper Theatre, NAC
When: Jan. 17 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.