ALEX CUBA BANDat Lula Lounge (1585 Dundas West), Friday (March 23), 9 pm. $10. 416-588-0307. Rating: NNNNN
When Alexis Puentes told me that his goal for the Alex Cuba Band was to introduce authentic contemporary Cuban music to a mainstream English-speaking audience, it seemed awfully ambitious.
Not that the Havana-born Puentes lacks talent, as anyone who's heard his fabulous Puentes Brothers work will attest. But for any artist working independently, getting a song on commercial radio takes a lot more than some skilful guitar picking, particularly if he happens to be singing in Spanish and living in rural Smithers, BC, 14 hours north of Vancouver.
Yet Puentes proved the doubters wrong by scoring a UK top-10 pop chart hit with the insidiously catchy Lo Mismo Que Yo (featuring Ron Sexsmith) to go with a 2006 Juno Award in the world music album category for his fab Humo De Tabaco (Globe Star) disc. The wisecracking Puentes admits that luck played a small role in his left-field success.
"I had this dream that it was possible to get English-speaking people to like my music in Spanish," says Puentes from his hotel room after a show in Ottawa, "but for a long time nothing was happening and I was beginning to think I might be crazy."
It turns out the success of Lo Mismo Que Yo was kind of a coincidence.
"I sent my CD to a BBC DJ in England who went on vacation, and Jonathan Ross replaced him. Ross put my song Lo Mismo Que Yo in a competition against some other songs. Radio 2 listeners text-messaged their votes for me, and my song won three days in a row, so he had to play it. That's when the song made it into the top 10."
That unexpected chart conquest altered the creative course of the recently released follow-up, Agua Del Pozo (Caracol), but not in any contrived attempt to recreate the hit-making formula.
Although the focus of the Joby Baker-produced recording remains squarely on Puentes's soulful voice, the inventive rhythmic diversity from song to song adds intriguing twists.
While some might surmise that Puentes must've picked up a few new ideas from some ancient Cuban conga maestro while in Havana to record the horn parts at the legendary Egrem Studios, the inspiration for many of the songs actually came while sitting in the basement messing with GarageBand on his Mac home computer.
"When Humo De Tabaco was being released in the UK, my label asked me for a vocal track for a radio spot and said, 'Just use GarageBand and send us an MP3.' But I didn't know what that was, so I went to the local Apple dealer in town and he showed me the basics of using GarageBand software. I went home and started to experiment, and soon it became a lot of fun.
"Many of the rhythms you hear on the new album were created using GarageBand. I can say that using that software gave me a lot of direction for the recording. Once I created the songs using digital instruments, I knew they would sound even better when I recorded them using real instruments.
"For a time, I was so inspired I was writing three songs at the same time - I thought I was going crazy. So did my wife, who left with the kids to let me work at the computer. I'd be there with my headphones on till 4 in the morning every night. It was so exciting and inspiring, yet very addictive, too."
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Even though Alex Puentes now makes his home in Smithers, BC, he still returns to Havana to record part of each album at the legendary Egrem studios. He explains there's something special about that room ...
He has just released a new album but Alex Puentes is already planning his next recording project