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Jazzman Puentes does the footwork

Saturday's show at the Upstairs Cabaret is a release party for his new CD
Adonis Puentes says life in Los Angeles was hard at first, but then came a breakthrough.

What: Adonis Puentes and the Voice of Cuba

Where: Upstairs Cabaret

When: Saturday, 8 p.m. (doors 7 p.m.)

Tickets: $20, $18 advance (Long & McQuade, Ditch Records)

Five years ago, Adonis Puentes was a newcomer to Los Angeles’s bustling Latin music scene.

The Cuban singer-songwriter, who is based in Victoria, had journeyed to L.A. determined to make his mark. “I started knocking on doors, trying to get concerts,” he said in an interview this week. “And it was a tough thing, you know. I did what they call ‘the footwork,’ showing up at different concerts.”

Latin bands started inviting Puentes onstage as a guest singer. His breakthrough was joining the Jazz on the Latin Side All Stars as lead vocalist. With Puentes at the mike, that group evolved into Jose Rizo’s Mongorama, a sizzling nine-piece nominated for a Grammy last year.

“When [Jazz on the Latin Side All Stars] call me, my life changed, you know,” said Puentes, whose first JLSAS gig was at the legendary Greek Theatre.

Today, Puentes is at the top of his game. In addition to his loyal Canadian following, the 39-year-old is now an established singer in Los Angeles. And Puentes has just released what he believes is his best and most mature recording, Sabor a Café, with some of America’s leading Latin musicians.

His weekend show at Upstairs Cabaret is a release concert for Sabor a Café, which boasts guest contributions from notables such as pianist Oscar Hernandez and the storied Havana band Septeto Nacional de Cuba Ignacio Pineiro. (The Victoria show won’t include those musicians — Puentes will be backed by his regular band, the Voice of Cuba.)

Sabor a Café, consisting of Puentes’ original compositions, is notable for its sparkling production and dance-happy, horn-heavy songs. The music is a rhythmic, modern interpretation of son, a traditional Cuban style combining elements of Spanish and African music. “I try to put in a twist of my own. My own revelations, my own way to see life, you know,” Puentes said.

His new songs, sung in Spanish, are mostly about love in all its forms. The title tune, Sabor a Café (literally “the flavour of coffee”), is about a man who receives a coffee-flavoured kiss in the morning from his lover “that invites me to wake up on a Saturday.”

The disc has been lauded by Latin music critics. It’s even been endorsed by salsa king Reuben Blades (“An excellent album I recommend with all my heart”).

Puentes, who chats with Blades periodically, first met the singer sharing the stage at a Lincoln Center concert. He recalls, with a laugh, that Blades dispensed valuable career advice.

“He told me the journey, this race, is not about speed. It is about resistance.”

That could well apply to Puentes, who has had two decades as a professional singer and claves player (claves are percussion sticks providing the rhythmic backbone of son).

Puentes immigrated to Canada from Cuba 15 years ago, following his twin brother, Alexis — a successful singer-songwriter who today performs as Alex Cuba. They come from a musical family. Their father, Valentin, was a respected guitarist who taught at the cultural centre in the Cuban town of Artemisa. At the age of six, both brothers were studying guitar, later joining a children’s band that toured the country.

Cuba’s top musicians regularly played Artemisa. People such as singer Ibrahim Ferrer of the Buena Vista Social Club would visit the Puentes home.

In Canada, the young men formed the Puentes Brothers band before each went solo. Through persistence and hard work, they forged careers as musicians in their adopted country. The distances were great, the population small, the culture was different.

It was not easy. “If you can break into the Canadian scene, basically, you can break into any other scene on the planet,” Adonis said, chuckling.

Both married Canadians. Adonis has two children, now 12 and 13. He and his first wife eventually parted ways; he has been with his current partner for a decade.

While Adonis lived mostly in Los Angeles for 31Ú2 years, for the past 18 months he’s been once again based in his adopted hometown of Victoria.

“It good to have a place to come back to, you know,” he said.

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