Outside the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, snow bundled on the staircase leading to the grand foyer. Cold blistered stars popped in the sky. The Rideau Canal shivered beside the building, its ice as cracked as my fingertips at the tail end of winter.
Inside, I and a friend mamboed and sambaed and sweat and swooned to the music of Alexis Puentes, better known as Alex Cuba, whose music solders his Afro-Cuban roots to jazz, funk, and soul. It wasn’t the disinhibiting effects of wine that made me dance in public along with several hundred others. It was Puente’s music and its call to my aorta, to my pulse, to my heels and hips.
Before last night, I didn’t know his music which is kind of like saying I’ve never heard of a Cuban sandwich. He’s a multi-award winning musician having claimed a number of Latin Grammys and a Juno along his musical path. He names Smithers, British Columbia as home. Wait. What?
Smithers is halfway between Prince Rupert and Prince George, battened down in the Bulkley Valley, about a 13 hour drive north of Vancouver. If you go to the town’s tourism website, his is the first photo you’ll see along with his bass player Ian Olmstead, another Smithereen. His picture leads the tourism images of downhill skiing, bears, First Nations art, a float plane, and incisor icy peaks. Like many northern BC towns, the population is primarily First Nations and white.
Fearlessness comes to mind. And romantic because why would someone move from Cuba to Smithers? Puentes says that while on tour with his father’s band on his first visit to Canada in 1995, he fell in love early one morning with the winter landscape along the highway somewhere between Winnipeg and Toronto. This is not an easy feat considering the road cuts through stark, hard Canadian Shield and trees and more stark, hard Canadian Shield and trees. Add snow and a sunrise you have stark, hard Canadian Shield and trees and sunlit blue cold snow – which I suppose is better than stark, hard Canadian Shield, trees, and black flies. But he loved it. And so, lucky Canada, he moved here, met his wife in Vancouver and settled in her hometown of Smithers. Romantic, eh? Now he has a band composed of two home-grown Smithereens – Ian Olmstead on bass, Jake Jenne on drums – and another transplanted Cuban, Jose Sanchez, on percussion. Oh, those congas!
I know nothing about how music is constructed. As a writer I understand and can pull apart and enjoy writing that I admire like shredding delicious pulled pork. I can tell you why word choices in someone else’s work give me shivers. How short and long sentences lead me to certain responses. In song-writing I can pick out poetry versus schmaltz. But Alex Cuba writes and sings mostly in Spanish so his appeal is something else. It’s the way his music makes my heart salsa and my blood jump – like I’ve shooshed down a mountain on my skiis.
Like I’ve encountered a grizzly bear while on a hike.
Like I’ve caught the biggest Spring Salmon ever.
Like I’ve seen a frozen Canadian Shield lake on the highway between Winnipeg and Toronto.
Like an Afro-Cuban calls Smithers home. Shoosh!