Puentes discover Cuban roots in Canada


PUENTES BROTHERS, with SISTERS EUCLID, JAKE AND THE BLUE MIDNIGHTS, NATHAN AND THE ZYDECO CHA CHAS, and the CHRIS MITCHELL GROUP, performing as part of the Beaches International Jazz Festival at the Alex Christie Bandshell, Kew Gardens (Queen at Lee), Saturday (July 29), noon. Free. And at Nevada (1963 Queen East), Thursday through Saturday (July 27 to 29), 7 pm. Free. 1-888-277-0796. Rating: NNNNN

With the Buena Vista Social Club album having sold in excess of 4 million copies, it couldn’t be long before everyone else was also trying to cash in on the throwback sound of Cuban son.

And while a few forgotten stars of the pre-Castro Havana club scene — namely Rolo Martinez, Omara Portuondo and Ibrahim Ferrer — are now enjoying a second career thanks to the Buena Vista phenomenon, the younger generation appears to have little interest in dabbling in the music of their grandparents, no matter what the payoff.

The Victoria, BC-based Puentes Brothers, however, are an exception. Fraternal twins raised in the rural town of Artemisa (60 kilometres southwest of Havana), Adonis and Alexis Puentes grew up playing traditional sones, boleros and guarachas from the time they could hold claves.

On the Puentes Brothers’ remarkably accomplished debut, Morumba Cubana (Alma), Adonis and Alexis — now seasoned veterans at 26 years old — play off each other like the cigar-puffing seniors that dominate their field.

Although they’ve added some of their own jazzy improvisation and mixed in a bit of flamenco and samba flavouring, there’s no evidence of the contemporary Havana timba or salsa sound popular with their peers. Instead, the Puentes Brothers’ sound remains firmly rooted in the old-timey Cuban folkloric music they knew as children.

Father’s son

“I think we were very fortunate to grow up in a small town in Cuba,” offers Adonis during a Toronto stopover. “The cultural centre where our father, Valentin Puentes, teaches music was right across the street, so we’d be there every day, surrounded by musicians and bands rehearsing.

“On Wednesdays, there would be a traditional music night where we’d get to see great artists like Ibrahim Ferrer and Celina González and then jam with them afterwards.

“Still, most of what we know about music comes from our father, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of traditional Cuban music. We also had access to many early recordings, but the education we got listening to our father was more than enough.”

The Puentes Brothers haven’t always followed the straight and narrow of Cuban son. During their late teens and early 20s in Cuba, Adonis performed with salsa bands while Alexis notably played bass in the acclaimed jazz-fusion combo Tempermentos in addition to performing and recording with Havana pop star Augusto.

It was only after they relocated to Victoria, BC — following a 1995 cross-Canada tour with their father’s band, Los Puentes — that they decided to return to their roots. The irony of coming to Canada to play more Cuban has not been lost on the Puentes.

“When we moved to Canada,” explains Adonis, “we had a chance to look at Cuba the way others see it. What most people know about Cuban music is the traditional sound — mambo, bolero, cha-cha-cha — the stuff we’ve been playing all our lives. So living in Canada just gave us more reason to maintain the traditional elements in our music.”

“For the last four years, I was playing mostly jazz in Cuba,” continues Alexis, “but what I’ve always wanted to play was traditional music updated with our modern ideas about harmony and lyrics. With this band we formed, I finally have that opportunity. It makes me feel proud to play this music.”

Canuck connection

The brothers Puentes will be the first to admit that they didn’t do it alone. There’s no question that their sophisticated rhythmic interaction is the main focal point, yet they get a soulful charge from ringers like pianist Hilario Duran, bata drummer Pancho Quinto, percussionist Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez as well as Toronto’s own Jane Bunnett.

“Jane has such a beautiful sound on the flute,” sighs Alexis. “I like the way Canadians play Cuban music. It’s always interesting to hear how Jane mixes her jazz influence with the Cuban syncopation. She’s a great, great player.”

“What I hear in her solos is a high level of spirituality,” adds Adonis. “When I feel that, I know Cuba is there. This music is a spiritual language.”

“When we first moved here,” chuckles Alexis, “we were worried about performing for Canadian audiences — like ‘I can’t sing in English, what am I gonna do?’ But even though we sing in Spanish and not everyone understands the words, we’ve found that people are still responding to our music.

“When you send out positive energy, people feel it and they send it back to you.”


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