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Alex Cuba’s code 

The JUNO-winning musician looks for new challenges, drawing inspiration from his Cuban roots and Canadian collaborators like Nelly Furtado and Ron Sexsmith.

Alex Cuba has taken a break for lunch. The Cuban-born-and-raised singer/guitarist is between two workshops on Sunday at the Stan Rogers Folk Festival in Canso. He'd already worked on two others the day before and played the festival main stage on Friday night. "They got me working," he jokes.

Along with Kieran Goss and Lynn Hanson, Cuba (born Puentes to a musical family in Artemisa, a town about an hour west of Havana) discussed the "songwriting process" with workshoppers.

"One thing I said is there's not really any formula to it," says the artist, who released his third album, Alex Cuba, late last fall. "Inspiration comes in many ways. You have to be open to that. You have to know yourself. You have to believe in it."

There's reason to believe Cuba lives by that code, which is, perhaps, to live by no code at all. He's open-minded: after all, he moved to Smithers, way north on British Columbia's coast, for love. His music drives in different directions, but there's a route to it. It's routed to that place where funk and folk reside, where electrified (he plays a vintage Gibson guitar) pop-rock and Cuban rhythms join, where soul and samba merge.

Cuba, pen-name aside, is being true to himself and to fans and festival audiences. He grew up musically---his father and brother are musicians too---and personally in Cuba. Now he lives in Canada's Pacific Northwest. He tours constantly and collaborates consistently. These realities cross-pollinate.

On collaborating, he says, "I'm doing it more and more. It challenges me to be something different than I would be on my own. Then when you listen to what you did, it's beautiful," explains Cuba, adding the beauty comes from the blending of "a little bit of me, a little bit of someone else."

He's recorded with Ron Sexsmith, and Sexsmith's producer for his 2002 album, Cobblestone Runway, Martin Terefe, produced Cuba's first solo album, the JUNO-pocketing Humo de Tabaco from 2006. He won a world music Juno for his sophomore album too, Agua del Pozo, in 2008.

"It's always worked," continues Cuba. "I guess it's because we are choosing who we are doing it with. There has to be a bond between the two persons."

A bond formed immediately between him and Nelly Furtado. Cuba co-wrote many of the songs for her all-Spanish album, Mi Plan, which came out in September 2009. Furtado invited him to work. "We wrote nine songs in a really short period of time. And seven of those nine she ended up recording," he says. "It was a really wonderful vibe."

Through their collaboration, Furtado's feelings were not hidden. "It was lovely to see how much she still loved music, you know, after she did so much and travelled the world so many times," observes Cuba. "Every time we wrote something cool or whatever together she would jump and scream with excitement."

Comparing collaboration with his own songwriting inspiration, Cuba makes this differentiation: "I never force myself to do it when I'm by myself. Collaboration is something else. The whole goal is to vibe with the person you're writing with---to listen to that vibe and go with it."

With his Halifax Jazz Festival appearance on Wednesday night, Cuba's playing Halifax for the first time. After playing Stanfest, which he describes as "a beautiful festival ---people love music here," he's hungry for more live action. "That's the ultimate. That's the moment of truth."

It's simple to him: "It simplifies yourself. It's just about translating---to get people to feel you right?"

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