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Cuban salsa has Latin forerunners

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Cuban salsa has Latin forerunners

WHO: The Puentes Brothers

WHERE: The Boot Pub

WHEN: Dec. 4

If you’re a music lover living in Whistler – and you’ve been paying attention – then you’ll know by now that four distinctive forms of music swing through the valley Dec. 1-8: Ashley MacIsaac with his Cape Breton fiddle; Michael Kaeshammer with his boogie woogie piano; Johnny Ferriera with his saxophone-driven swing machine, and The Puentes Brothers, with their version of traditional Cuban salsa. (All these events are at different venues, which just adds to the variety).

It is the Cuban origin of salsa song writing that the Puentes Brothers will be bringing to The Boot Pub this week, and the beginning of authentic Cuban salsa in Canada.

You know this music has a chance to succeed when young people mention it on the street, which happened to me in Whistler the other day. Alexis Puentes, on the phone from Vancouver Island, is not surprised by the local fascination with the music he and his brother Adonis are playing.

"We’re getting to see that. Everywhere I play, young people are there," Puentes said. "I think it’s because I do the album with all my heart. It’s really wonderful. But you know, we are the only Latin band with a video on (mainstream) Canadian TV."

After only 18 months as Canadian citizens, the Puentes Brothers have landed a record deal, produced and recorded a CD, called Morumba Cubana , and gained popularity with the song Oye Rumberito, which is the video Alexis refers to. "We want to do a club mix, because we think this music is good for that, you know, techno-house. There is already one artist, Zesaria Evora, who has done it, and she sounds good."

Cuban music is similar to, but not the same as, Latin American salsa. Puentes call his music as close to authentic Cuban as you can get. But when asked why he called his music Latin, and not Cuban, he laughs.

"I say Latin, because a lot of people think of it as that. I know what you mean. People call it Latin because they think of the meringue or the cha cha or something like that. And then they also think of 20-person bands, wearing bright colours and big gold jewelry. But that is more of a Latin American, Chilean salsa.

"We have to get ourselves billed as Cuban," Puentes added. "We don’t do the meringue."

Puentes says the confusion between Cuban salsa, which is drawn from the tradition of the island’s roots music called son, and Latin American salsa, comes from Cuba’s "closing to the world" in the 1950s. The Buena Vista Social Club, he says, is excellent Cuban traditional music, but it is the classics from the 1950s and earlier.

"There are no record companies in Cuba that can export the kind of music me and my brother play. We bring the tradition of Cuban music with new ideas. We belong to a generation of Cuban musicians, but we are young. So we will go slowly."

Puentes, who plays guitar and sings, says he and his percussion-playing brother are the only Cuban musicians playing this style of music outside of Cuba.

Cuban son music is much like blues in North America. As rock ’n’ roll is based on the blues, so salsa is based on son. Puentes explained very clearly the reason why Latin American salsa sounds different is because those musicians have created and evolved a style of salsa based on music played in Cuba 40-50 years ago.

And of course the dialect is different. Latin music has the dramatic, flamboyant and romantic voice phrasing that, no matter what your native tongue, sounds as though these men are promising their undivided love to beautiful women for the rest of their lives – and giving it with every fibre of their being. The truth is usually far from that though. The Puentes may have let the cat out of the bag regarding the mysterious Spanish language and its dozens of dialects. In their CD jacket, there are Spanish/English translations.

For example: On Oye Rumberito, the lyrics "Eh cabellero pa‘ la calle caminando sonando com mi bongo," translated to English is: "Hey man, onto the street and playing the bongo." And despite the simple message, Puentes comes from a well educated background.

"My father has a university degree. And where I come from is Arte Misa and there is a high standard of language and learning. I won second place in a national song writing competition there.

"We wanted to do the translation on the CD because, even though you lose a lot, we wanted to make it easier for people."

In July, at the Beaches Jazz Festival in Toronto, The Puentes Brothers made it easy for fans to vote them the Best Band at the Festival. A photo on the inside cover of Morumbo Cubano – an ancient seawall battered by white caps with young Cubans swimming on the barnacled breakwater – provides a snapshot of life in Malecon or middle Havana. Soon, Puentes hopes songs such as Oye Rumberito will be easy to remember.

"It’s like Oyo como va," he says of the Santana hit. "That’s why it was a mutual decision with us and Alma Records to use Oye Rumberito for the first CD. It’s good Cuban salsa and easy to remember."