Some pop-music theorists believe that having roots in a musical culture can hinder the cause of pop — without roots to drag you down, you can create music that floats free of those annoying signifiers of the past. Like most pop theories, this is a half-truth, and the case of the Cuban-born Canadian soul-funk-pop musician Alex Cuba exposes it as a classic canard. Cuba is a commercial musician, but he specializes in music that has tensile strength. In his modest way, Cuba is a groundbreaking figure, which may say something about the process of giving roots music a cosmopolitan polish.
Cuba made a splash with his self-titled 2009 full-length, and he went on to win the 2010 Latin Grammy for Best New Artist. Although Alex Cuba was his breakthrough, he had already released the fine 2007 Agua del Pozo, which featured such guitar-driven tunes as "Vampiro" and "Mariposa." Jazzy and slick without being vacuous, Agua del Pozo is an accomplished funk-soul-pop record, complete with songful moments and tense, repetitive electric guitar licks.
Cuba was born Alexis Puentes in Artemisa, Cuba, on March 29, 1974, and he draws inspiration from his guitar-playing father.
"Through my father, I was exposed to a lot of Brazilian music," Cuba says from his home in Smithers, British Columbia. "I remember jamming with him to 'The Girl From Ipanema' and 'One Note Samba.' I played guitar for a few years, and when I turned 14, a band from the city came to Artemisa, and they had an electric bass. I said to my dad, 'I want to play that instrument,' and three months later, he got me one."
Learning the bass from a local teacher, Cuba absorbed the work of such North American jazz-funk masters as Jaco Pastorius and Marcus Miller. "After he heard me play, he said, 'I think you like funk music, and I think you like jazz,' " says Cuba. "He gave me some tapes — they might have been CDs anywhere else in the world, but in Cuba it was tapes. That was my introduction to American music."
After marrying a Canadian woman, Cuba moved to Canada in 1999, settling in Smithers a few years later. Already proficient on bass and guitar, Cuba decided to expand his horizons. "I have become something different than most of the people that I was listening to," he says. "I became a singer-songwriter, you know what I mean? I was a musician first, and then I became a singer-songwriter, which makes me see the music from a different point of view."
With his Gibson electric providing focus — he prefers an ES355 outfitted with heavy-gauge steel strings, and plays with his fingers — Cuba perfected his approach on Agua del Pozo, though his 2004 full-length Humo de Tabaco has its moments. Agua features plenty of Latinized funk — "Penita en la Cara" teems with ingenious guitar interplay, and grooves mightily.
Cuba released last year's excellent Static in the System, which takes his sound to its logical extreme. A superb rhythm guitarist with a knack for eloquent, single-note solos, Cuba never overplays. As he says, he's a singer-songwriter — the Static track "Creo" begins with Anglo-American chord changes before building to a section with massed guitars. The tune ends with a remarkable guitar rave-up in the mode of Television, and Cuba signs out by declaring, in English, "I believe in you." Although Cuba usually sings in Spanish, he's an artist for whom the language barrier is invisible. He says he may work with an American producer for his next record, and he seems as comfortable with the idea of commercial outreach as any pop musician.
Cuba's ability to connect with an audience was evident when he played his first Nashville show in November 2010: He impressed the crowd at The Basement with his first-rate guitar playing and singing.
"It was a very interesting crowd, in the sense that it didn't take much to engage them," Cuba says of his inaugural Nashville performance. "And that's always surprising, when you're playing for an audience at a place you've never been before."