In many ways, Cuba is the perpetually rediscovered country at our doorstep. In popular culture, it seemed to wink out with the 1959 Communist Revolution. Or maybe it was the following year, when Ricky Ricardo and the final episodes of “I Love Lucy” went off the air. Whatever its ups and downs, there’s no way that the Cuban part of Afro-Cuban music stays long forgotten.
In the late Cold War, there was the ’70s supergroup Irakere, which launched still active jazz stars Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D’Rivera and Chucho Valdez. In the ’90s, Ry Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club project relit careers that had been dormant for decades. Audiences are always finding they still love the music of a country that, in our cliched U.S. imagination, has been a pariah nation, frozen in time with poverty, oppression and classic 1950s automobiles.
“I have to say I had a beautiful childhood,” says Cuban guitarist and singer Adonis Puentes, who was born in Artemisa, about an hour southwest of Havana, in 1974. It was very family-oriented, and fertile ground for music.
“My father taught music and lived right across from the cultural center,” he says. “All the world-class bands would play there. Often they would come to our house afterwards.”
Puentes and his twin brother, Alexis, started playing at festivals when they were 6. “A passion for music was the only way to conceive life,” he says.
They grew up in the tradition, playing nonstop with a multitude of bands in theaters, carnivals and on national television and radio.
“In Cuba,” he says, “being a musician is equivalent to being a doctor or engineer. I met so many amazing heroes. It allowed me to grow.”
In 1998, the Puentes brothers each married Canadians and moved to British Columbia. “It changed our lives,” Puentes says. “We had hit records, won a Juno. Played every city in Canada, had people lined up outside. Boom. It was almost too fast for us.”
But it came to a sudden stop in the wake of 9/11. The music industry collapsed and the brothers took separate paths. Alexis rebranded himself as Alex Cuba and launched a Grammy-winning pop career. Adonis took the route of the more traditional music he loves.
“Music is like love,” Puentes says. “It can be good or bad, but there is only one love. Many people come without knowing what to expect. I sing in Spanish, but I speak to the crowd in English. I get them to sing along, to clap, and of course to dance.”
“We put everything into it,” he says. “Afterwards, even though we are sweaty people, they want to shake our hands or even hug. I think, ‘Wow, this is working.’ It is a beautiful time.”