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From Cuba, with rhythm: The Adonis Puentes story

The Adonis Puentes story has the makings of a fine biopic.

The outline: Fraternal twins from Cuba (named Alexis and Adonis) become popular musicians in their homeland, tour Canada with an ensemble, fall in love with Canadian women, move north to Victoria, earn a Juno nomination with their debut record.

Next comes the inevitable creative differences. The brothers go their separate musical ways. Alexis gets a Grammy nomination. Then, earlier this year, Adonis gets his own Grammy nomination.

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The biopic would be an uplifting tale about bridging cultures and settling in a new land.

Just imagine the soundtrack.

"You come to my concert and you dance," Adonis Puentes said. "My mission in life is to make you have two hours of joy,"

Sounds so simple. The full story is more complicated.

Mr. Puentes performed at the FolkWest music festival at Royal Athletic Park in Victoria on the weekend, where he unveiled a new band with musicians from around the globe. He has a pianist from his native Cuba, a lead guitarist from Morocco, a bassist from Los Angeles, a percussionist from Colombia, and a drummer from British Columbia.

At rehearsal recently, Mr Puentes told them, "This is a good jam with a good excuse. The excuse is my songs."

The singer-songwriter describes his latest music as "fusion with Cuban roots." Since his arrival in Canada 14 years ago, Mr. Puentes has earned critical acclaim as a soñero, singing ballads backed by the mix of Spanish guitars with African rhythms peculiar to Cuba.

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Mr. Puentes divides his time between Victoria and Los Angeles, where he has been recording an album titled Sabor a Café, scheduled to be released in the fall.

About six months after that, he plans to release yet another album produced with his B.C. band.

He finds a quiet, unglamorous life in Victoria conducive to songwriting. On most days, he can be found strolling in Oak Bay along Willows Beach, or Cattle Point. He mostly composes at home on his guitar, although inspiration strikes at unlikely times.

"Sometimes, songs attack me," he said. "I have had to pull the car over to call home to leave a message with a melody that struck me."

The twins were born in 1974 in Artemisa, a faded colonial city southwest of Havana. By six, they were learning guitar. Their father, Valentin, was a tough taskmaster, insisting the boys hear only the finest music. He even forbade their mother, Maria, from singing to them, as her voice was not fine enough to satisfy her husband's high standard.

The senior Puentes formed a touring ensemble featuring two dozen guitarists, travelling an island where music ranks only behind baseball as an obsession. When not on the road, the boys performed at the city's Casa de Cultura across the street from their home. They jammed with the likes of Ibrahim Ferrar and other Cuban legends long before they found global fame as Buena Vista Social Club.

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While touring Canada in 1995, Alexis fell for a Canadian woman, who returned with him to Cuba, where they were married. On a second tour of Canada three years later, Adonis met and married a woman in Victoria.

Sadly, their relationship did not last and he is frustrated by a dispute over access to their children, a 12-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son. "I'm caught in a huge bureaucracy," he complained.

Adonis often returns to Cuba to visit family and to appraise the local music scene.

"I'm a messenger of my Cuban roots and tradition," he said. "I cannot say I am a Cuban musician if I have not been to Cuba in the past 14 years."

After they decided to follow their own musical paths, his brother, who now uses the stage name Alex Cuba, has enjoyed great success, playing with Nelly Furtado and other stars, while also winning a Latin Grammy. Alex, who lives in Smithers, played Hornby Island earlier this month and will be in Salmon Arm to play at the Roots and Blues Fest on Friday, Aug.17.

Adonis's climb has been slower, though he has sung with the likes of Celia Cruz and Ruben Blades. He was thrilled earlier this year when a recording by the nine-piece, Los Angeles-based Jose Rizo's Mongorama earned a Grammy nomination as best tropical Latin album. Mr. Puentes serves as the group's lead vocalist.

"I was attending the biggest party of the music industry," he said. "I never saw that in my wildest dreams."

During the gala at the Staples Center, Mr. Puentes allowed himself a moment to ponder a journey from a Caribbean island to a Canadian rain forest, from modest beginnings in Cuba to a star-studded event in Los Angeles. Then it was time to meet Tony Bennett, one of his idols.

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