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Alex Cuba's northern B.C. family ties highlighted at UNBC convocation

Cuban musician became Grammy award-winning singer after he came to Canada; presented honourary doctorate on Friday

Family ties bring strength and inspiration to Alex Cuba.

On Friday, the same day he released his latest album Voces Di Mi Familia (Voices Of My Family), the 50-year-old Cuban-Canadian singer/songwriter walked the stage at UNBC to receive a Doctorate of Laws honourary degree.

While acknowledging his latest honour in front of packed house at the Northern Sport Centre at the start of the morning convocation ceremony, Cuba told the audience of his love for his wife and business partner Sarah, and how their marriage led him to Smithers, their home for the past 21 years, where they raised their three adult children.

“Love has allowed us to accomplish things far beyond our dreams,” said Cuba, who offered a taste of his immense singing talent to introduce his speech.

“To those graduating today, I would like to say congratulations, the world awaits your talents. And today, more than ever it is more important to listen to your hearts, to follow your dreams at all costs, no matter how tough life can seem. There’s no bigger price on earth than to do what you love and to love what you do.”

Cuba said the uncertainty that came with the long drives and cold winters of living in an isolated north-central B.C. town brought moments of self-doubt that made him wonder what a Cuban musician was doing living so far away from big-city life. But that was always overshadowed by the quality of life he and his family have experienced in Smithers. 

He talked about a phone call he received from CBC radio in 2010, after he was nominated for a Latin Grammy as best new artist. The first question Cuba was asked was to inquire if he was going to move away from Smithers to be closer to the music scene. 

“My answer was, welI, I think that would be a mistake because living in Smithers makes me very unique (as a musician), it makes me stand out, it makes me different,” said Cuba. 

“Here in the north, our greatest challenge is our greatest asset. We are away from the city and conventions that a bigger population offers, but we are gifted with the space to think and act different, often creating unique solutions in our fields of expertise.

“It is an honour to be standing here today before you all. It means the world to be recognized by the people of my neck of the woods, northern British Columbia.”

Cuba is a four-time Grammy award nominee and in 2022 his album Mendo won best Latin Pop Album award.  

He says the nearby mountains that form the backdrop of Smithers and the quiet solitude he finds there is a welcome relief when he returns from one of his frequent world tours and coming home never fails to get his creative juices flowing.

“Within hours, I’m humming something, I think it’s the mountains, which I see right behind from my studio windows,” Cuba said. “Life has blessed me with living where I live and that level of self-confidence and happiness and it makes me create from a point of view of grace, which is rare to find today in this world. In terms of music, people write from anywhere else except grace and gratitudes and love.

“I have to say it’s not for everybody. Whoever loves the city will hate Smithers and whoever loves the small town will hate the city. In my case I love the silence, I love when it’s all up to you, what are you going to do? That challenge is beautiful, it keeps making me vibrate to the vibration of music and creativity.”

Cuba moved to Canada in 1999 after marrying Sarah in Cuba. They lived in Victoria for four years, where Alex and his twin brother Adonis performed as the Puentes Brothers. Alex grew up playing bass guitar and was not a singer until he after he arrived.

“My dad didn’t think I could sing,” he said. “Canada made me sing. The first time I opened my mouth in Canada, people started crying, started celebrating. It was meant for me to come to Canada.” 

In an interview after the convocation ceremony, Cuba talked about his latest album and how a discretely-recorded conversation with his father Valentin sharing a family story inspired the last track on the album, Que Sabroso Mi Son.

“I switched my phone on to record without my dad knowing and he was so animated that when I listened to it the next day it gave me the idea for a song, with him talking and also with the laugh because we laughed so hard,” Cuba said. “I made him sing for the first time ever in his life.”

Voces De Mi Famila was recorded at the home studio he built two years ago in his garage in Smithers, where he also produced Mendo.

Four of these latest songs came as a result of a cappella videos sent to him from family members in Cuba.

“It is a very meaningful project for me because it’s a family album,” he said. “It’s an album I put together that started in the middle of the pandemic with a video that was sent to me from Cuba with an auntie of mine who was singing, who never did any singing before.

“But she got dementia, and dementia made her sing with the voice of an angel that nobody in the family knew she had. That triggered me to do an album, Voices of the Family, that I’m proud to say already has half a million streams, and it came out last night, so I’m proud of it.”

This is Cuba’s second honorary doctorate, having received his first in 2022 at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. 

Former Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price and nature conservationist Jim Good, founder of Goodsir Nature Park, also received honorary degrees Friday at UNBC.