Alex CubaWith exceptional artistic integrity and independence, the Cuban-Canadian artist Alex Cuba has achieved a remarkable level of success. He makes a genre- and nationality-defying music, runs his own record label from a town 14 hours outside Vancouver, and won both the Latin Grammy for Best New Artist and a Grammy nomination for Best Latin Pop Album, in addition to a heap of critical acclaim, for his most recent album.
"When it comes to creativity, I need to go to places I've never been before," he says. With the wanderlust of a world traveler, the Cuban-Canadian singer-songwriter explores new sonic spaces on Ruido En El Sistema / Static in the System. Following the compass points of rock, soul, pop, and Latin-funk on his fourth album, Cuba continues his journey as a critically acclaimed independent artist who's charted his own destiny across the world stage while earning a growing legion of devoted listeners at each new juncture.
As rebels are often wont, Alex Cuba views his music as a liberating force. It's a quality that's transmitted through the artist's songs and has made him a fascinating exception to the staid rules of category. He explains, "The purpose of my music is to free up people, to free up musicians, to free up writers and composers and creators in the world. That is the purpose of why I do music. Music, for me, is not one style. I'm not creating for one kind of people." Armed with a Gibson ES355, Alex Cuba consistently challenges perceptions about what Latin music is, and who listens to it, by simply being himself.
A self-proclaimed "musical sponge," Alex Cuba first learned the music of his native Artemisa, a city located just west of Havana. His father, a guitarist and music instructor, earned a Master's degree in music at age 55 and remains a source of inspiration for the artist. Beyond sharing a natural affinity for music, the multi-instrumentalist Cuba learned the discipline of honing his musical talents from his father and later formed The Puentes Brothers with his brother. Citing influences that range from Kind of Blue by Miles Davis to The Beatles' White Album, Cuba looked beyond the rich heritage of his homeland to develop his own singular style -- one fueled by spontaneity, or what Cuba characterizes as the "tension of imperfection."
Alex Cuba's soulful style was first glimpsed in 2006 on his solo debut, Humo De Tabaco. Working with producer Martin Terefe (Craig David, Jason Mraz), Cuba netted a Top 20 BBC Radio 2 hit ("Lo Mismo Que Yo," featuring Ron Sexsmith) and received his first Juno Award for "Best World Music Album." Agua Del Pozo followed in 2007 on the artist's own Caracol Records, earning Cuba another Juno for "Best World Music Album" and further expanding his profile in the U.S., Japan, and the Netherlands through concert appearances and an iTunes "Single of the Week." Two years later, he co-wrote nine tracks with Nelly Furtado and was featured on her Spanish language debut for Universal, Mi Plan (My Plan), including her chart-topping "Manos Al Aire," which later earned Alex Cuba a 2011 BMI Latin Award for his songwriting contributions to the track.
However, it was Alex Cuba's third album that brought him to a whole new level of international renown. Arriving in 2009, Alex Cuba showcased the artist's winning partnership with co-producer Joby Baker and contained his first English song, "If You Give Me Love." The self-titled set generated praise from media outlets ranging from NPR to Billboard to Jazz FM UK. In November 2010, Alex Cuba was awarded a Latin Grammy for "Best New Artist" in addition to a nomination for "Best Male Pop Vocal Album." Alex Cuba was also acknowledged at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards with a nomination in the "Best Latin Pop Album" category, an impressive achievement for an independent artist still cultivating a U.S. fan base. "It was a little token for all of the time I’ve put into the music, all of the sacrifices," Cuba says of his Grammy nod. "It's also a pointer that you better appeal to your guts and keep doing music for the reason that your guts tell you why you do music -- for the feeling of it."
During this remarkable series of career benchmarks, Alex Cuba recalls thinking, "I have to make an even stronger album than I've ever done in my life." Once again marshaling his keen instincts at Joby Baker's studio in Victoria, B.C., Alex Cuba reset the barometer of his own expectations and recorded another artistic triumph, Ruido En El Sistema / Static In The System. Cuba entered the studio with a wealth of material. "Every time I go into the studio, I have at least 23 songs," he notes. "Then from there, I make sure I capture the magic of the moment that sometimes happens without thinking. The way I record, its just Joby and I doing 95 percent of the music. The last step is going to Havana, where I record horns and percussion."
The pop punch of "Eres," and its English companion "Are You," set the sessions in motion and spawned a variety of styles that stem from Cuba's clear yet eclectic sensibilities. "Creo" best embodies the musically integrative vision of Cuba's songwriting. He says, "What I like about 'Creo' is that it has many levels. It's almost a folk song, which in Latin America was big with Silvio Rodríguez, and 'cancion protesta.' When I went to the studio, I knew that 'Creo' had rock inside of it. That guitar riff at the end gave 'Creo' a whole different musical life."
Alex Cuba has often stated that feelings of joy and happiness often prompt him to pick up his guitar and compose. While "Suspiro En Falsete" and "Nadie Come Tu" certainly examine love through a poetic lens, there are also moments of uncharacteristic darkness on the album. Cuba cites both "Como Si Nada" and "Todo En La Vida" as examples, noting that the latter is "a violation of expectations on all fronts. The exception is that the song feels happy." Juxtaposed against a bed of tango rhythms, Cuba's lyrics paint a desolate portrait of romance.
The artist casts a more critical eye on relationships, both interpersonal and in a more global sense, on "Ruido En El Sistema" and its English counterpart, "Static in the System." He notes that the lyrics could even extend to the overt commercialism of our culture. "We have so much noise pushed on to us right now that it's hard for people to find what is the truth," he says. "'Ruido En El Sistema' is bigger than the life of a song. It makes me feel that the song doesn't have an end, that the song will never die." The title track exemplifies how a variety of interpretations can be derived from Cuba's compositions and transcend the strictures of language. The meaning translates through melody, rhythm, and Cuba's voice. "People who don't understand what I'm saying can feel in their heart what I'm doing," he emphasizes. A perennial comment at Cuba's shows: "I don't have a clue about what you're saying but you made me cry with that song."
That kind of intimate connection between Cuba and his audience was recently captured for a concert-documentary DVD to be released later this year. Inspired by a picture of an old bus that Cuba found online, he launched a contest sponsored by Now Magazine and Exclaim Magazine in Canada for entrants to win seats on the "Alex Cuba Express." He explains, "We chose 50 winners. We got them on the bus in Toronto and moved them to a music studio that's been converted from an old barn. We set it up and played a show for them..
The wide-ranging musicality of Ruido En El Sistema / Static In The System will doubtless bring more passengers aboard the "Alex Cuba Express." As the conductor of his own musical journey, Alex Cuba is paying close attention to the path before him."I'm listening very carefully to the signs of my career, to make sure that we don't grow too fast or too slow," he says. "Ruido En El Sistema opened my eyes. One thing that producers and musicians notice is an incredible maturity and development in my songwriting, if you compare my new music with my previous albums. It makes me feel really good when I hear that because I can say that I've done the development on my own." Ever the rebel, Alex Cuba makes even uncharted terrain feel just like home.