If some of you, like me, devour a new recording even before you first play it, turning the package over and over in your hands to look for clues about what’s in store for you before you put a vinyl or CD on the turntable or CD tray, you’ll find very little to give the game away on Alex Cuba’s 2019 recording, Sublime. The title while appearing to make reference to the inspirational trova tradition also, by happy coincidence, turns out to suggest an appropriate synonym for the character of the album’s music. But the package has all the essentials: a spare, artistically designed cover with a woodcut-style image of the artist haloed as if by the sun, a photograph of the star on the back cover as if to replicate a watermark and a booklet with what every vocal recording ought to come with – a sheet including printed lyrics. Alex Cuba doesn’t really need hype of any kind. His star has been on the rise with every new release: the eloquence and meaningfulness of his artistry makes it so. Thus the aura of glory imagined to surround him is all too real for he is a revered member of the artistic community.
A supremely gifted composer, vocalist and instrumentalist Alex Cuba wears the garb of the Cuban trova tradition with discreet elegance. Moreover, because he is eminently steeped in the history of Cuban music; indeed in the cultural topography of the influential Caribbean nation, he is also clear-eyed about his role in it. This awareness had led him not to dwell in the tradition, but to reinforce its beauty in the changing landscape of music. The repertoire of Sublime is a beautiful example of this. On song after song, he shows just how fresh his musical mind is as he gives way to the march of time, yet leans back into the tradition to re-state the artistic aspects – the music of its song – in the modern context. This mixing styles: the sounds of music and dance that swirl around Cuba and all of South America – from trova to cha-cha; from bolero and cumbia to bossa, Afro-American-laced Jazz and other popular styles and forms – all of this informs the superb music on this album.
This is an album that celebrates the joy and sorrows of humanity with deeply-felt emotion. Élan, intelligence and passionate engagement: the Vancouver(Canada)-based singer brings it all to his exemplary performance contained within the album. His enunciation brings the music (all of which is written or co-written by him) to life with genuine feeling and crystalline purity. His singing runs the gamut from the aching lyricism of “Dividido” (on which he duets by the song’s co-author, Silvana Estrada) to the elated peroration of “Cantando de Alegría” and the singular, powerful vision of “Ciudad Hembra” with Kelvis Ochoa. The crowning glory is “Y Si Mañana” a stellar duet with one of the greatest Cuban (equivalent of the Occitan) trobairitz, Omara Portuondo. Its beauty lies in the weaving and floating of heartfelt lyric between them as the music reinforces the deeply-held emotions of both vocalists.
Leonel García on “Solo Mía”, Alex Ferreira on “No Son Manera” and Pablo Milanés on “Hoy Como Ayer” also grace this superb recording. Remarkably, Alex Cuba has not only had a hand in all of the music and – as producer – the overall shaping of the sound palette, but he has played all of the instruments. The exquisitely contoured sound of the requinto guitar brings voluptuous contours to the music which is also dramatically textured and coloured by the plump, moist sound of the contrabass against a background that is sharply etched and shaded by percussion of a myriad variety, individual colour, voicing and character. All of this contributes to a richly stimulating and quite brilliant performance of endlessly enduring music.
Track list – 1: Yo No Sé; 2: Cantando de Alegría; 3: Ciudad Hembra (La Habana); 4: Voz de Corazones; 5: Dividido; 6: Esta Situación; 7: De los Dos; 8: Solo Mía; 9: Las Mujeres; 10: Y Si Mañana; 11: No Son Manera; 12: Hoy Como Ayer
Personnel – Alex Cuba: vocals, bass, requinto guitar and percussion; Kelvis Ochoa: vocals (3); Silvana Estrada: vocals (5); Leonel García: vocals (8); Omara Portuondo: vocals (10); Alex Ferreira: vocals (11); Pablo Milanés: vocals (12)
Released – 2019
Label – Caracol Records (APCD0045)
Runtime – 44:35