The Concert For Hope, Help, and Home (a benefit for Community Living Victoria) featuring Alex Cuba and Kuba Oms
When: Tonight, 8 p.m.
Where: McPherson Playhouse
Alex Cuba's career exploded two years ago after the release of his self-titled second album, which earned the Smithers-based performer Canada's first-ever Latin Grammy Award for best new artist.
Nearly three years later, he still hasn't come down from the clouds.
The native of Artemisa, Cuba - whose real name is Alexis Puentes - has just released his third album, Ruido En El Sistema, which took more than a year to complete. There's a good reason for the delay: Cuba's increased workload as a collaborator, which includes extensive work with Victoria product Nelly Furtado, has forced him into double duty of late.
"This took a little longer than the other albums," Cuba said, chatting from a car while stuck in a Philadelphia traffic jam. "That was due to the volume of work I've had to do lately."
Cuba recorded the bulk of his new album with long-time collaborator Joby Baker in Victoria, where he settled as a landed immigrant in 1998, following a tour.
The two friends co-produced the record at Baker Studios, with Baker accompanying Cuba on drums and keyboards. Theirs is clearly a fruitful friendship, and Ruido En El Sistema builds on the journey that began with their previous collaboration, 2007's Juno Award-winning Agua Del Pozo. "Although he's Cuban and I'm English, we grew up listening to the same music," Baker said.
"Our approach to music is very similar. Rather than talk to each other, we just do it. It just happens."
Cuba has a habit of making things happen. After his arrival in Victoria, he immediately set off on a career with The Puentes Brothers, a group he cofounded with his fraternal twin brother, Adonis. The group's debut album, Morumba Cubana, scored a surprise Juno Award nomination in 2001, but a follow-up was not forthcoming. The group split amicably in 2003, with Cuba moving to Smithers (where his wife was born) soon after.
He was at a crossroads in his career by this point, though he never gave up on Smithers. He still lives in the town, despite spending a good chunk of each year on the road.
"Once you're on top of [your career], and the demand is growing, because I've started to tour more and more, it doesn't really matter where you live," Cuba said. "Anywhere you live, you have to fly. I actually find it easier living in Smithers than living in Victoria, because of the ferries."
He also likes the pace of his northwestern B.C. home, which is 14 hours removed from the bustle of Vancouver. "It's better to live in an isolated area. It lets you sit, for a minute or two, once you're back."
Smithers has welcomed Cuba with open arms, indeed.
Following his stop at the 2011 Grammy Awards, which was big news back in Smithers, Cuba travelled to the Sunset Sessions Rock Conference in Carlsbad, California. While he was there, Cuba checked his Facebook page and saw that a friend from Smithers had come up with a novel idea - to make art out of the cool Cuban's afro.
Perry Rath, an art instructor at Smithers Secondary School, had asked his students to make their own interpretation of Cuba's music using a stencil of his visage for guidance. The result was a multicoloured series of Cuba impressions that have since become the cover artwork for Ruido En El Sistema.
"They did it with a real celebration, raising awareness that somebody from Smithers was up for a Grammy," Cuba said. "They created posters and put the images up all over town, in windows and doors. It was amazing."
Cuba may find himself back at the big dance in due time. The music on Ruido En El Sistema has less of the jazzy, Cuban feel of his previous work, which could attract an entirely new audience. Should that not be the case, Cuba would be overjoyed to continue at his current pace. He laboured for years under the radar, which taught him an important lesson.
"Most young people I meet, I say make sure you get it straight right now. If you want to be a musician because you want to be famous, that's the wrong, wrong, wrong reason. Is your heart telling you you're going to be a musician? No? Then get out of the way, kid."
A full-length collaboration with Furtado could be forthcoming as well, Cuba noted. "Our collaboration is ongoing," he said of the recent sessions that resulted in the duet Nadie Como Tu, which appears on Cuba's new album.
Cuba co-wrote with Fur-tado six of the 12 songs on Mi Plan, Furtado's acclaimed Spanish-language debut from 2009.
Manos al Aire, which Fur-tado co-wrote with Cuba and James Bryan, hit No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Top Latin Songs chart, making Furtado the first North American artist to top that chart. Could a second instalment be the project that sends Cuba off on another, even more fantastic journey?
He doesn't even entertain the idea. Despite his successes to date, Cuba sets modest goals. And to help realize those dreams, he adheres to a strict spending scheme that will almost ensure his success long-term.
"When I moved to Victoria, we moved into this really old house," he said. "My father gave me a little room for me and my family. I never complained. Instead of thinking because I'm in Canada I should go and destroy the supermarket buying stuff, I went the other way around. I didn't have much, so I used the fact that I'm used to living with so little, and made music pay for the little that I can bring in. If you want to make a living from what you love, never put any conditions to it. Make the best out of what you get.
"It takes a special kind of mind [to do this], because I know people who are challenged to make a living from music, even though they are successful. They waste too much."
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