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It’s no secret that Peterborough is a hub for great music acts, including both local and touring bands. Alex Cuba and his band are certainly no exception – their performance at the Market Hall Performance Centre on Saturday, January 18, was nothing short of astounding. The multi Grammy and Juno Award-winning artist made a quick but unforgettable stop in Peterborough as part of his album release tour, with big city shows such as Ottawa, Toronto, and London, ON. Although the weather that evening was frightful, with over 18 centimetres of snowfall overnight, the house was nearly packed to capacity with people ready to see the band in action. At roughly 8:30 p.m., the Cuban-Canadian artist was welcomed to the stage along with his band: Zak Windle on guitar, Alain Bergé on drums, Jose Sanchez on percussion, and Ian Olmsted on bass.
Cuba entered on a bass progression of the song “Yo No Sé,” the first track off his recent album Sublime. The jazz-fusion track with tongue-twistingly fast vocals was a great start to what would soon become an eccentric display of musical versatility. The show featured songs that deeply resembled funk and Latin/Bossa influences, along with intricate hints of jazz and rock infused. Although the sound itself is so unique that it’s hard to put a label on it, Cuba’s music is certainly in a league of its own. The setlist was fairly interspersed too – one instance the band would play a slow and smooth romantic ballads such as “No Son Manera,” before immediately transitioning into a get-off-your-seat-and-dance, up-tempo dance numbers like “Ciudad Hembra,” which is Cuba’s tribute to Havana. The only thing you could expect at a concert like this is for the next song to be just as good – if not better. Cuba certainly doesn’t disappoint in this regard.
It was enlightening to see the band interacting with the audience between songs. Cuba often urged the crowd to sing and cheer for sections of the songs, occasionally putting on comical arrangements to his songs, such as holding the bridges/verses/endings off to give the crowd a sense of anticipation. Throwing in a couple jokes and stories helped to make the crowd feel at home.
After a brief intermission past the 45-minute mark, the band returned for round two. It was at this point I noticed that Cuba was sporting a pair of Blundstones. Whether he knew that those particular shoes are a Peterborough (or at least, Trent University) staple, it was a good find. The set began with the band ushering the crowd to stomp and clap at the desired tempo before the song began on beat. The latter half of the show featured a variety of other selections from the Alex Cuba discography, including a few arrangements, and some killer instrumental solos from Windle and Sanchez, to name a few. Teetering between the fine lines of serenity and explosive energy, the band could seamlessly have you jump from your chair before easing you back in, all in a matter of minutes. The crowd was hooked and gave a standing ovation chanting “¡Otra!” (encore), in which the players gave us two more songs featuring an inadvertent finale by Windle playing a solo electric guitar set. This band worked wonders in keeping the crowd in suspense.
I was fortunate enough to sit down with Alex Cuba after the show for an interview. He gave us his insight and commentary on the show and tour:
Spencer Wells: What would you say were some of the highlights of the show?
Alex Cuba: Well, tonight was a special night! Let’s begin with the weather… it was a bit tricky to get here today. I was hoping a few people would show up to the show, and it was beautiful to see the amount of people that came. I was very happy with that. That sort of set the tone for an interesting night, ya know? I was trying to give people thanks for what they did – driving under the snow to come see us, so I guess it was a very emotional sort of show. I really appreciate when people go out of their way to go see live music; not only for myself, but any live band. But yeah, I think there were beautiful moments tonight… you may have noticed that I like talking quite a bit on stage, making jokes and stuff. The people laughed quite a bit. We had people dancing, and of course you know some songs are more impactful than others. But yeah, I think there were many, many beautiful moments there.
SW: You guys definitely have a very dominant stage presence, getting the crowd involved is always a cool thing to see, especially with big bands such as yourselves. You guys are on tour for the Sublime album release, what are your thoughts on the tour so far?
AC: Tonight it was show number four, and it's going really well. This tour is not too long, only eight shows here in Ontario, and we crossed to Quebec, to Montréal for one show. That was two nights ago. Yeah, it's going very well despite the fact that we’re touring in January, in Canada [laughs]. Well, it's interesting everywhere in Canada but people are coming out and enjoying the music. It's working and touching people in beautiful levels, very emotional, and people are getting it. The shows that were playing [are] divided into two sets, 45 minutes each, and the first set is completely off the new album. It's only 43 minutes long so we can play the whole album on the first set. It's beautiful to watch the reactions of the people who are feeling it.
SW: Definitely. I noticed on stage that your band employs a lot of different playing styles, genres as well. What are some of your contemporary influences as a musician?
AC: Well, I am that kind of musician. What I mean is that it's difficult for me to set on one style. I grew up listening to a lot of different kinds of music, so what I write and what I compose is like that. There was a time in my life where I was thinking that wasn’t cool, that was a mistake because people like to sort of like to categorize music, put it in a box and say “this is this, and that is that”. I had a good friend who told me “that is what is making you stand out from Latin music.” For example, “I like your music and I’m not a fan of Latin music” he said to me, and “…why I like your music is because you surprise me with every song. I can’t guess where you’re going. So I don’t understand Spanish, but you still keep me intrigued; you still keep me paying attention, listening to your albums, and what’s coming next”. And that’s what we do live - everything you heard are my arrangements/original compositions. We try to put it together in the simplest way, and to go from one style to the other in the same show, you know, it takes confidence to do it.
SW: For sure.
AC: But I think in Canada it works, and more on that, I think it's given me a sound, to put it that way. I’m not inside any Latin genre, I’m everywhere music-wise, and like I said before, its appealing to the Anglo ear – people who don’t speak Spanish because the music is interesting enough for them to be drawn to them. If I was just a Salsa musician, for example, you would have to be a Salsa fan in order to like what I do, know what I’m saying? Because after the second and third song everything will begin to sound the same for you. So I am very proud of what the sound I have developed in Canada, and the identity of a musician I have developed here.
SW: Any big plans coming up for the tour, and musical/artistic goals?
AC: Yeah, the new album came out in late September, of course the goal now is to keep putting it out there, to keep telling people “Hey, there’s some new music”. I’m going to do a few versions of the songs that are already released on the album because I like to do stuff in French, at least one song, and then maybe at least a couple of songs, to do English versions… or rather, Spanglish versions. In the meantime, I’m on the road. In March, I’ll be in the U.S. I have a big tour coming up in the U.S., but I’m always doing something. The idea is to constantly be promoting what you put out, right? But mostly just getting the life component of it, it's just tour, tour, tour! I want to take February off, March in the states, then April, May, June, all that, have shows in Canada as well. Yeah, that’s the idea to get yourself out there as much as you can.
SW: We wish you all the best for the tour and beyond!
AC: Haha, thank you!
Needless to say, Alex Cuba deserves to be on everyone’s concert radar (and Valentine’s day playlists – thank me later)