When Cuban singer-songwriter Alex Cuba won his first Grammy last year, he wasn't in Havana or Miami. When his phone rang, he was driving through a snowstorm, heading home from a concert in his rural hometown in northwestern Canada. It was his New York publicist.
"He said, 'Dude, please be stationary – I've got a lot of people trying to reach you,'" recalls Cuba, whose name is Alexis Puentes. Then, he says, he asked the publicist, "Why?"
"And he said, 'Dude, you don't know?'"
The musician's self-produced album Mendo, created during the pandemic, had just won a Grammy for "Best Latin Pop Album."
"It was intense, exhilarating, unbelievable," says Puentes, 48. And one more milestone for the Cuban musician who's created a uniquely independent yet world-spanning musical identity from Smithers, British Colombia, a mountain town of a little more than 5,000 people 14 hours north of Vancouver. He has lived there since 1999 with his Canadian wife, Sarah Goodacre, of 28 years, and their three children.
He loves Smithers, where they put up a mural honoring his Grammy win in the middle of downtown. "To some people, it might seem impossible to have a career from such a remote place," says Puentes, who's released multiple albums on his label, earning four Latin Grammys and numerous Canadian awards. "To me, it shows that I'm good enough to do anything from anywhere. I like how I can quiet my mind; I can focus 100 percent. There are no excuses here."
Now Puentes comes to Miami, the capital of Cuban exile. On Saturday, March 4, his trio and guests Kelvis Ochoa, Luis Enrique, Munir Hossn, and Robert Vizcaino Jr. will play the lone concert of Global Cuba Fest 2023. The celebration of Cuban music across the diaspora is marking its quince this year at the Miami Beach Bandshell.
Although Puentes played Global Cuba in 2009, he hesitated at returning, concerned whether Miami Cuban audiences would accept his music, which ventures far beyond the island's typical popular styles. "I focus a lot on crafting music with a huge variety; it's hard to pinpoint me in a specific genre," says Puentes. "For Cubans, that's sometimes difficult. But my team — that's Sarah, my wife — said that's exactly why you should go."
Indeed, Global Cuba Fest celebrates how Cuban musicians, whether from the island or worldwide, continuously reshape their rich musical traditions. It's an artistic mission that acknowledges the reality that political shifts in Cuba and the U.S. mean artists often emigrate, and it's not always possible to present artists from the island in Miami.
"What we set out to do, whatever political party is in office, is put the greatest musicians from Cuba onstage," says Beth Boone, artistic and executive director of the Miami Light Project, which coproduces Global Cuba with fellow Miami presenter FUNDarte. "As we had to navigate different political realities, we expanded the mission and vision. That was the best thing that could have happened. Because it forced us to look at Cuban musicians living in Spain, Morocco, Brazil, Miami, New York — and British Colombia."
The festival has featured groundbreaking fusion acts, like 1990s icons Habana Abierta and influential Havana collective Interactivo. Dafnis Prieto, the brilliant jazz drummer who now teaches at the University of Miami's Frost School of Music, made his Miami debut at the first Global Cuba in 2008. Stellar jazz acts like Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Yosvany Terry have been regulars. The festival introduced Miami to Cuban funk sensation Cimafunk in 2019. South Florida-based acts have included Albita and Tiempo Libre.
FUNDarte founder and executive director Ever Chavez says the festival also showcases how the island's musical diaspora changes music elsewhere. "Cuban artists who leave intoxicate people with Cuban music and influence other musicians around the world with their virtuosity, excellence, and approach," says Chavez, a producer in Havana who emigrated to Miami in 2000.
Puentes is a prime example of that global influence — a result of love and chance. He grew up learning bass and guitar in Artemisa, a small city in Cuba. He followed his father, respected musician Valentin Puentes who was a guitarist and teacher of traditional Cuban son and guajiro (country) music. On tour with his father's band in 1995, he approached a girl working at their Vancouver Island soundcheck and said, "I like you" in halting English. Luckily, she spoke Spanish. Within a year, they were married.
But it wasn't until they moved to Smithers, Goodacre's hometown, that Puentes began to find his artistic identity, he says. He blended Cuban son and nueva trova — the Latin American, socially conscious singer-songwriter tradition — with pop, rock, and jazz to create an indefinable, captivating, sweetly reflective, and melodic sound, recording two independent albums in the 2000s that won Juno Awards, Canada's top music prize. U.S. record labels circled, but as a Cuban national, they wouldn't touch him until he got his Canadian citizenship.
"My biggest success is to have created a music career and raised a family," he says. "Creatively, I'm a wildflower. I can't have anyone telling me what to do."
He often uses that freedom to collaborate with other artists. For 2020's Sublime — on which, for the first time, he played all the instruments and produced himself — he also went back to his Cuban roots. He filmed a video in Havana of "Ciudad Hembra," a yearning ode to the city, with Habana Abierta cofounder Ochoa. He recorded with childhood idols like legendary diva Omara Portuondo and Pablo Milanes, a pillar of Cuban nueva trova.
For years Puentes had longed to record "Hoy Como Ayer," which he wrote with Miami-based songwriter Fernando Osorio, with Milanes. "It came so fast and beautifully, like thunder," Puentes remembers. "When we finished, I started hearing Milanes." They never met — Milanes recorded his part in Spain and died at 79 last November. But they spoke briefly via FaceTime. "Pablo said the art of being a singer-songwriter is in danger, and it's up to your generation to keep it alive. He gave me a purpose for the rest of my life."
For Mendo, stuck in pandemic lockdown with the rest of the world, he collaborated with Latin music mainstays like salsero Gilberto Santa Rosa and flamenco artist Antonio Carmona. He first approached famed Mexican singer-songwriter Lila Downs for the quietly luminous "Mundo Nuevo." "It was so empowering because her answer was, 'Alex, I'm so grateful you thought of me,'" he says. "I thought, maybe we're all bored at home waiting for something to do."
Mendo's most unexpected collaboration is with Cimafunk, known for his fiery stage shows. "I was always intrigued with how Cimafunk would behave in a quieter environment, aiming at deep musicianship, not necessarily to make you dance," Puentes says. The result, "Hablando X Hablar," features the two singing over jazzy, tautly syncopated bass and handclaps, with lyrics like "do what you want, no one here can criticize" that seem to challenge preconceptions.
"Mendo taught me not to be scared," Puentes says. "Funny how something that seems horrible can be your biggest blessing. I don't regret anything — it all happens for a reason."
– Jordan Levin, ArtburstMiami.com
Global Cuba Fest 2023. With Alex Cuba Trio. 8 p.m. Saturday, March 4, at Miami Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; fundarte.us. Tickets cost $20 to $40.