I moved to Smithers because I was running away from the law!"
"Careful, comments like that get into print, you know!"
When four-time Latin Grammy award winner Alex Cuba is interviewed, the conversation usually turns to Smithers, B.C., the logging and mining town where Cuba has lived for over 10 years.
The Cuban-Canadian singer-songwriter (born Alex Puentes) explains how he got there after leaving his hometown of Artemisa for Canada in 1999:
"It was a family decision. My wife Sarah (Goodacre) was born here and she has family. In 2003, I started working with a producer out of England and then I started travelling there quite a bit. We'd just had our second child and it made sense to move near her family. I was on the road so much and I haven't stopped since!
"We'd come up for Christmas and it was always fun and beautiful for me to see the real Canada. Once we were settled here I started thinking, 'Hmm. Did I do the right thing?' I felt far away from my roots and from other Latin musicians.
"But the very fact that I was here changed my view, changed my life forever."
With the support of Goodacre, who told him to just play his music and great things could happen, Cuba says he opened his mind and made it work.
"I started jamming with local musicians and it started changing me. It put me on the path of why I moved to Canada. I wanted to create music that is universal," Cuba says.
"It is very cool for me to say that now two musicians from Smithers are members of my band."
Along with the Latin Grammys — most recently Best Singer-Songwriter Album in 2015 for Healer, his fifth album — Cuba's upbeat soul has earned two mainstream Grammy nominations, including one in the Best Latin Pop category earlier this year.
He has also won two Juno Awards.
Cuba has worked in the past with Victoria singer Nelly Furtado, no stranger to Grammys herself.
"At that time I was spending a lot of time in Ontario, so we ended up working together. It brought attention to me from the Latin magazines in the United States and Mexico," Cuba says.
"I created a network outside of Canada with people I write music with, people I send my songs to in order for them to sing."
He remains anchored in two countries, like many immigrants, and uses it to his advantage in his songwriting.
"I consider my music to be as much Canadian as it is Cuban. It has to do with my soul and who I am," he says.
"I was never fearful that I was going to lose my culture. I will never stop being Cuban. I was born and raised there. Instead, I believe in a new type of Cuban, who has a new global view."
Cuba-the-country is still important to Cuba-the-musician.
"In Cuba, at least up until when I left, the music was based on how tight the band was, how the arrangements are. Cuba was cut off from the world for a while; we were a self-contained musical unit. The social consciousness has maybe grown in Cuba more than anywhere else," he says.
"Before I left, I would think that jazz music was pop music. On the streets, people sing and hum really complex lines. They don't even know they're doing it!"
Then Cuba sings a few complex lines as an example, like a Buena Vista version of Ella Fitzgerald, and adds that Canada has brought simplicity to his complex style. Then he took his new style to his home country.
"Now I pay more attention to the song, when before it was the arrangement," he says.
"I went back to Cuba and put together a group of musicians and we recorded. I was able to play my music for them and saw the most beautiful thing ever.
"They didn't believe their ears. They didn't believe it was them playing the music, they jumped up and down. We made them play from a place that they were not used to ever. On that overpopulated island most people are musicians. You have to be really good if you want to eat from it."
Alex Cuba is performing a free concert at the Great Outdoors Festival, a.k.a. GO Fest, on Saturday, May 21 at 7:30 p.m. on the mainstage in Village Square.
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