Like his stage name, Alex Cuba’s work instantly evokes the Caribbean island from where he came. Born Alexis Puentes in Artemisa, the precocious singer/songwriter has made his home since 1999 in the small Canadian town of Smithers, British Columbia (population 5,500). Somehow, amidst all the moose and black bears and trout fishing, Alex Cuba has remained focused on his roots. His lyrics return again and again to visions of the sun, the ocean, the tropical rain. His music combines the sweet melodies of trova cubana with the vivacious drumming of son, rumba, and other Afro-Cuban rhythms. “Lo Único Constante” (“The Only Constant”), his wonderful sixth studio album, is a loving reworking of these mainstays.
Its twelve songs swing back and forth between tropical dance tunes and pop ballads. Some, like “Todas las Cabezas Estan Locas” (“All the Heads Are Crazy”) and “Yo Sé Quién Soy” (“I know Who I Am”) are guitar driven. While in earlier work Cuba has dabbled in American pop and rock, these songs have the innocence of 80s rock en español. The simple, chaste lyrics about love and loss, about joy, make for very enjoyable listening. Others feature feisty drumming and whimsical voicing, as in “Piedad de Mi” (“Mercy for Me”) with its lovely “popi popo pipipi” singsong. In “Chékere”, one of the album’s highlights, Cuba displays a wonderful hand at creating a tropical island mood. The keyboards burst in unexpectedly at just the right time. Excepting the title and a couple of verses of the eminently danceable “Look What You Started”, the album is entirely in Spanish.
With “Lo Único Constante,” Cuba seems to be entering a more mature stage, in which he is less concerned with touching all the bases when it comes to jazz and other Northern rhythms and more interested in exploring the many facets of the Cuban musical tradition. His vocals are clear and welcoming and unshowy. Only one song, the bucolic “Lágrimas Que Llora” (“Tears that He Cries”), allows him to show off his range.
“Lo Único Constante” doesn’t reach the heights it might have. The lyrics, especially, are not up to the standard of the inventive musical arrangements. Cuba seems to be working from a limited vocabulary, perhaps trying to imitate the simple romanticism of the old standards. There is a lot of repetition, and a lot of cliché – “after the rain”, he croons in the slow ballad “Eco”, “the sun will come out”. Some of the writing is really quite careless, offering such nonsense sentiments as “her eyes hide the moon of my heart” (from “Me Queda este Grito”). Only “Chékere” shows true inventiveness in its use of wordplay and traditional slang, and I suspect the lyrics precede this version of the song.
In order to continue evolving in this new phase of his journey, Cuba needs to take as many risks lyrically as he does musically. Nobody expects him to be Silvio Rodriguez — the great writer among Cuban songwriters and a clear benchmark for Alex Cuba — but there are many places to go. Hopefully he will explore some of them in his future work.