Alex Cuba, not missing Cuba

June 9, 2010

From Alex Cuba's new album, the song Caballo: 02 Caballo

The first time Alex Cuba laid eyes on Lake Michigan was through a plane window, and the water just went on and on and on, filling the frame endlessly.

“I said that’s no lake, it’s a sea! It’s so impressive, whether in summer or winter.”

He may carry his homeland as an artistic surname, but Alex Cuba – real name Alexis Puentes – is from a little inland town on the island called Artemisa, far from the waters. Its biggest claim to fame, besides perhaps Alex himself, is probably the Hotel Campoamor, where a prominent member of the family who owned it used to hold literary salons that attracted, among others, Pablo Neruda and Ernest Hemingway. (A monument to Neruda was unveiled at the hotel just this spring.)

So he’s a Cuban but not a coastal person, not a beach guy.

“I’m not a city person either,” said Alex, who now lives with his Canadian wife and half-Canadian half-Cuban kids in the tiny town of Smithers in BC. “But I identify with Chicago because it’s the cradle of the blues guitar, home of Muddy Waters. Growing up in Cuba, black American culture wasn’t very present. The American music we heard was more pop. Very few people know anything at all about blues or soul, about Chuck Berry.”

But Alex, who found his way into music through the bass, also fell in love with black American culture along the way.

“At first, I didn’t know where all this was coming from, then I realized so much of it had roots in Chicago.”

His big musical faves: Kool & the Gang and Michael Jackson.

“Michael Jackson plus Jaco Pastorius, that’s me,” said Alex. “I used to have a real fever about Michael Jackson. I dressed like him, I danced like him.”

These days, he looks more like a cross between Jimi Hendryx and Sly Stone.

So he’s a Cuban, but he looks more San Francisco circa Summer of Love than Miami anytime.

And his sound? It’s got a sweet soul pinning, a funky R&B bass that’s a million miles from that little Cuban country town he hails from.

But it’s also got a bed of inimitable Cuban percussion.

“I go back to the island once a year,” he says. “But I go to work. I hire musicians, who are happy to do something different, because Cuban music is stifling right now. And we record, usually percussion and brass. For me, these are elements, they’re not the end all. They’re just part of the mix. I’ll be honest: I don’t miss Cuba. If I missed it, I’d be there. I left legally, but I’ve never looked back. I left because I wanted to. This means that I get to mix where I’m from with wherever I’m at. It’s a good mix, a really good mix.”

So – get this! – he’s a Cuban, happy in the world, not trying to go back.

How weird is that?

Alex Cuba makes a Chicago stop Thursday, June 10, at Rumba, 351 W. Hubbard. Doors open at 9 p.m., show at 10. Tickets $15 in advance, $20 at the door.