There’s this run-down Cuban joint on Avenue C between 4th and 5th Streets in Manhattan that’s a favored late night spot of policeman and drunken revelers. I’ve walked by it innumerable times on my way to DJ at Nublu, the cozy lounge and musical hotspot founded by Turkish saxophonist/keyboardist Ilhan Ersahin seven years ago, which sits directly next door.
I’ve only ever stepped inside the Cuban diner because my DJ partner, Bill Bragin, would be chowing down before a set, as he was prior to our June gig a few months back. (Cubans and vegetarians don’t always see eye-to-eye.) The room is oddly shaped, comprised of a few mismatched wooden tables and chairs thrown into one half the restaurant, while the kitchen sits in the back and the thievery-proof counter (Loisada Ave, as it’s also known, has only recently reached gentrification status) rests to the left. It smelled of pork, heat, and soda.
A man and woman sit next to Bill. The woman, I’m told, is a singer. I recognize the man before I’m introduced, first because he’s a hard man to mistake, second due to the Condom Black tattoo plastered on his forearm. So far Brazilian singer Otto has two album names inked onto his flesh. If he’s brave enough, and I’m guessing he is, his latest will demand valuable real estate: Manhã Acordei De Sonhos Intranqüilos (Nublu) is a mouthful, not to mention an armful. I’m not sure where he’ll slot it in.
Otto - photo (partial) by © Vladimir Radojicic
Late that night, after he had partaken in a drunken love fest on the microphone with Shitty Shitty Jam Band—actually an excellent outfit, comprised of half the Brazilian Girls—we sat in the corner comparing chest tattoos. I’ve got him beat in quantity, though again I suspect that won’t last long, especially if his album titles continue to grow. His full name is, after all, Otto Maximiliano Pereira de Cordeiro Ferreira.
His name is certainly growing, as he recently played a soggy show at Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors series with a new DJ Dolores/Siba collaboration, Blind Date. In preparation for that show, The New York Times wrote a favorable feature on the youthful troubadour. At 41, he cites the mixture of Dutch, Portuguese, Indian, and mulatto blood in his veins to his open-minded outlook at music. His attitude in song-making seems to mimic his life: playful, friendly, always ready to party. After making his way as a percussionist he journeyed into electronica, because, as he told The New York Times, “I started in electronica because it was easier, something you could do quickly and cheaply, and that made it the ideal path.”
Thing is, he wanted to transform electronica, which is different from merely playing it. I don’t know how successful he was at that—I wouldn’t necessarily think his beats are groundbreaking. This particular album in fact, has a much more live feel than his previous. What is fascinating about Otto’s sound is the amalgamation of influences he manages to throw inside a song. It’s not even his voice that drags you in, though it is damn unique. As Bill Bragin told me that evening, it’s Otto’s on-stage presence that captures you. I can vouch for that from the jam he partook in. The boy has some passion inside of him, and he knows how to present it.
That Brazil should unite so much in its music is not new. The Tropicalistas started this over four decades ago. As Caetano Veloso, another singer known more for his aura and appeal than for his voice, wrote in his book, Tropical Truth, “It was true that American music was always competing with the Cuban rumba, the Argentine tango, and the Portuguese fado, even as Brazilian music remained—as it still is—the most consistently popular music in Brazil.”
I think Otto would agree with this sentiment. Being of the next generation, he has digital means that Veloso and Gilberto Gil and Gal Costa and others didn’t have (and still do not employ in the music they make today). Otto makes the most of what he can get his hands on, but his music remains unapologetically Brazilian.
Only in that country could a song like “O Leite”, which features another important modern Brazilian singer, Céu, be created. Using a penchant for strange, science fiction-sounding space effects, Otto hangs in and around his counterpart as they make their way through the lyrics. It reminds one of Veloso as well, the way he wove his voice into a more pitch-correct female singer, and the way that makes the song sexier instead of detracting from it.
Not everyone can pull that off. Not many at all. Mexican-American singer Julieta Venegas joins Otto for two songs, and while not nearly as sexy (more folky, more upbeat), those songs are gorgeous.
On his own, Otto has no lack of inventiveness. “Janaína” features a killer samba beat. He bounces from it brilliantly. He can spread out a rock track like his Tropicalia forebears (“6 Minutos”), and he can fake scream with the best of them (“Filha”). Later in his book, Veloso wrote, “We had to rid ourselves of Brazil as we knew it. We had to destroy the Brazil of the nationalists, we had to go deeper and pulverize the image of Brazil as being exclusively identified with Rio.” Four decades later, the battle continues, with a perky, rough-hewn figure named Otto taking up the clarion call for a new Brazilian identity.
Alex Cuba - photo (partial) by ©David Ochoa
Perhaps Alexis Puentes redefined himself as Alex Cuba to quickly explain his music to the British Columbia audiences he began facing a decade ago. He moved from Artesima, outside of Havana, Cuba, for love. Currently he lives in Smithers, British Columbia, quite north of Vancouver, with his wife and three children. Given the frigid disposition his warm blood must feel in that near-arctic air, temperature hasn’t stopped him from snatching two Juno Awards for World Music Album of the Year, one in 2006 for Humo De Tobaco, another in 2008 for the subject of this column, Agua Del Pozo.
Cuba’s determination is commendable. He was courted by major labels, given his integrity on the touring circuit and growing fanbase. After a falling out with a label years back, he knew the indie route would work. Winning two Juno awards—the American equivalent is the Grammy—on your own label certainly merits attention. But you wouldn’t need to know that if you just heard the music. Agua Del Pozo is an exceptional album. Cuba looks like a sparky Maxwell circa 2001.
He’s got that lover’s rock feel, though his R&B isn’t as sultry. His funk is funkier. Critics have compared him to Marvin Gaye. I hear that in temperament, not musicality. Sure, he’s got jazzy soul down. What really invites you inside is the warm bass, the beats—that voice.
What I hear is Bill Withers in “Si Pere No.” I know, comparisons are lame, though they offer an understanding to a reader who may not be a listener yet. And I don’t think most male singers would mind being compared to Withers or say, Donny Hathaway. Cuba lets his voice linger in that manner. You want to hang onto it. “Si Pero No,” or “Yes and No,” contemplates the eternal masculine problem: she is no good for me, but it could be better than what I have.
Cuba does not gripe or groan about his lusting. He sings about it, beautifully at that, and he gets you to dance while meditating on the subject. Dance might be too strong a word. Sway. He sways a lot.
But he dances, too. “Agua Del Pozo” is an ode to dancing like you’re pumping water from a well. Something like that. Not a great image, per se, but the song’s got juice.
He doesn’t exactly go off the deep end lyrically. He croons about being turned into a vampire by a woman he desires. He’s also a butterfly wanting to love her. This her gets a lot of time in his music. Women deserve the praise, which is why love songs were invented. Cuba makes the expectable unexpected through timbre, syllables, whispers. You can never base a form of music on that alone, though. Think of it more as an amalgamation: drums, bass, rhythm, percussion, wicked guitar, undeniably soulful vocals. His package is simplicity, and he wears it well.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.