Cuban music, just like sugar cane, simply will not grow in Canada, says Cuban-Canadian singer-songwriter Alex Cuba.
Unless, of course, that sugar cane is spliced with maple trees.
Cuba is on a mission to bring Cuban music to a larger audience — even if it means stepping away from Cuba’s strong “salsa-esque” essentials, such as tight arrangements, lightspeed pace and impossibly intricate technique.
Cuba attempts to craft a dimension of Cuban music that is more inviting.
“That’s really been my approach — in creating something that invites people, rather than punching them in the face from track number one,” said Cuba.
“(With regular Cuban music) you go ‘Wow, that’s amazing!’ and then you’re tired,” he said.
And most Canadians don’t get straight-up Cuban music, which explains the almost complete lack of a Latin music market in Canada, says Cuba.
The Latin music void has freed Cuba to develop his style — Canadian audiences bring few Cubo-centric expectations to his concerts.
“I left Cuba, and I haven’t been holding on to what I did there, I let go in order to absorb what was in front of me,” said Cuba.
Except the language — Cuba’s still singing exclusively in Spanish.
Starting out as a bassist in the Cuban music scene, Cuba’s career as a singer/songwriter only began once he arrived in Canada.
Cuba remembered his father’s reaction to an early composition.
“He would say, ‘I love the melody,’ ‘Wow, it’s beautiful’ … but also, ‘You might want to get your brother to sing the song because I don’t think you have a voice,’” said Cuba.
In Canada, Cuba and his brother, Adonis, recorded the song — with Cuba singing — and sent a copy back to their parents.
On first hearing it, Cuba’s mother later told him that the song brought tears to his father’s eyes.
“I believe Canada has given me a lot of feeling and what you hear is my heart and not my voice,” said Cuba.
“When you do that in a country like Canada, people will feel what you’re saying without speaking any Spanish,” said Cuba.
That’s why, for the many incarnations of the Alex Cuba band that he has assembled across the country, Cuba insists that no prior Cuban or Latin experience is necessary.
His musicians only need skill — and soul.
“I never really understood the concept of being a mechanic and only being able to work with Chrysler engines,” said Cuba.
“If you take a ride with a friend of yours that is driving a Mercedes and the car breaks down, are you going to be able to fix it up or not?” he said.
“If you’re a musician you should be able to play anything,” he said.
Outside collaboration has been a large part of Cuba’s efforts to welcome Canadians into the Latin music sphere.
The artist has shared the stage — and the recording studio — with the likes of Jose Gonzalez, Feist and Seu Jorge.
Along with Blue Rodeo, Cuba is currently working on a Spanish version of Bad Timing, a track off the band’s 1993 album Five Days in July.
Opening recently for Sam Roberts, the Alex Cuba band left the stage “on fire,” he said.
“People were saying, ‘My God, it sounds huge!’” said Cuba.
Most bands performing in Cuba also attract a comforting layer of high energy dancers, providing movement and colour to the set.
Entering the Canadian music scene with his brother Adonis, Cuba soon found he had entered a nation of nondancers. Where there were once kicking feet and swirling dresses, are now rows of seated, intent spectators.
Cuba likes the change.
“My brother is the kind of guy that, from the first few moments of the songs, he really loves to see people on their feet,” said Cuba.
“I was always confident seeing people listening to me — I prefer people sitting down,
I love being in a situation where you’re in the centre. Everything is black, dark, there’s a spotlight on you and everybody’s listening,” he said.
Cuba’s music is starting to gain small acclaim in his homeland, but it is still going to be a while before he feels ready to perform in his native land.
“Cuba is closed to the world … there is no way of knowing what is happening music-wise outside of the island,” he said.
As a result, Cuban musicians may resist the multitude of influences that characterize Alex Cuba’s music.
Instead of trying to make his name from scratch, Cuba plans to return to the place of his birth on a wave of worldwide repute.
“I’m hoping to win a lot of fans here in North America and around the world before I make it down to Cuba,” said Cuba.
“I would like to make an appearance down there once I’ve been on the air and my videos have been played on MTV and they have a reference, instead of just falling from the sky,” he said.
Alex Cuba is playing Wednesday, September 24 at the Yukon Arts Center.