Arts Chat: Exploring Identities in the Arts
Presented in partnership with The Arts Center at NYUAD and the NYUAD Career Development Center
Join singer-songwriters and instrumentalists, Raul Midón & Alex Cuba, along with Palestinian artist Mays Albaik in a conversation centered on discovering what it means to create space for difficult discussions and the way empathetic environments can be formed.
Mays Albaik is a Palestinian artist with a visual practice triangulating body, language, and place. Crystalizing as performance, video, sculpture, and installations, her work layers a personal poetics onto the sociopolitics that define relationships to geography; looking for moments of mediated as well as immediate contact between place, body and language. Albaik holds an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design and a B.Arch from the American University of Sharjah. An alumna of Salama Emerging Artist Fellowship (SEAF), she recently opened her first solo show ‘A Terranean Love Note’ at Tashkeel, Dubai, and has participated in various exhibitions including Qala 0.8900 (Darat Al Funun, Jordan); BWWB (Helix Art Gallery, Brooklyn, New York); Sawt 2a (Grey Noise, Dubai). Her work is currently on Display at The Louvre Abu Dhabi as a finalist in the first Richard Milles Art Prize. Albaik’s early practice developed out of the oral narration of her family’s history, the story of her grandfather’s exile from Palestine, and the winding path through geopolitical and cultural landscapes that led to where she is now; a non-citizen resident of her country of birth. Mays Albaik was born in 1991, Abu Dhabi, UAE; and lives and works in Abu Dhabi, UAE.
His sugarcane-sweet melodies, pop-soul hooks and powerful guitar riffs, relinquish a conventional stereotype that exemplifies much of the Latin music landscape. Born Alexis Puentes in Artemisa, Cuba, was immersed in music at a very young age, joining his father’s (respected guitarist and teacher Valentin Puentes) group of 24 guitarists. Alex then went on to study electric and upright bass and touring and recording nationally and internationally. In 1999, Alex moved to Victoria, B.C where he recorded an album titled Morumba Cubana alongside his twin brother Adonis, as The Puentes Brothers.
Alex then went on to record his solo debut album Humo De Tobaco in which earned him a Juno award for World Music Album of the Year in 2006. In 2007, Alex released Agua Del Pozo which also earned him another Juno award for World Music Album of the Year in 2008. From there, Alex released his third album, a self-titled project Alex Cuba in 2009. The album features his first ever English track titled If You Give Me Love. The album gained recognition on an international level. In 2010, Alex took home the award for Best New Artist at the 2010 Latin Grammy Awards, where it was also nominated for Best Male Pop Vocal Album. It also followed a nominated for Best Latin Pop Album at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards and in 2011 Alex took home a BMI Latin Award for his songwriting on Nelly Furtado’s #1 Spanish hit Manos Al Aire. In 2012, Alex released his fourth album Ruido En El Sistema, which Alex received his second Socan Hagood Hardy Award for outstanding achievement in Jazz and World Music.
He also won his second Latin Grammy Award – this time as a songwriter, alongside co-writer Yoel Henriquez received the award for Best Tropical Song for the Milly Quezada’s single, Toma Mi Vida. In 2013, he again brought home a Latin Grammy for the video Eres Tu from Ruido En El Sistema, a video produced entirely in his hometown of Smithers.
Alex Cuba’s 5th studio album, Healer, was recorded in New York, USA and Victoria, Canada, using a live rhythm section, trading in horns for guitars and vocal harmonies. With five duets with singer songwriters, four being Canadian, Ron Sexsmith, David Myles, Alejandra Ribera and Kuba Oms as well as New Yorker Anya Marina, it is an upbeat, acoustic soul album full of optimism and reality as Alex always has a silver lining on melancholy of any form. The album won a Latin Grammy for best Singer-songwriter and was nominated for a Grammy as best Latin Pop in 2016.
In 2017, Alex completed his 6th album Lo Unico Constante, beginning in Spain and passing through Montreal to record a single with Jean Massicotte. Then meeting up with the rhythm section from Healer in Baker Studios to record and mix 12 songs that delve deeper into Alex’s songwriting roots, focusing on nylon string guitar and upright bass. Looking at the “filin” movement in Cuba of the forties that fused jazz and trova together with emotional but not sad lyrical content. Music that influenced his writing style to this day. The album was nominated for both a Latin Grammy for Best Singer-Songwriter and Grammy for Best Latin Pop.
In 2019 Alex Cuba embarked on his first ever self produced collection of songs featuring 5 collaborations, this time with Latin American singer songwriters, recorded in Gibsons BC with John “Beetle” Bailey and mixed at John’s Drive Shed studio in Ontario. The album received a Latin Grammy Nomination and performance at the televised Award Show in Miami November 2020.
From the healing voice of Grammy Award winning Lila Downs on Mundo Nuevo, to his colorful collaboration with world-renowned flamenco artist, Antonio Carmona, and commissioning a 13-piece horn band from his native country of Cuba, Alex’s vibrant eighth studio album, Mendó, is filled with international collaborations, earning it a 2022 Grammy for Best Latin Pop Album. His musical evolution for years was all about searching for the simplicity and soul in Cuban music – taking apart the complex arrangements, mixing it with North American influences, adopting the melodic simplicity of pop music, looking to Cuban folk traditions for inspiration – he’s always exploring, always creating something fresh and new, and always, it seems, getting it just right.
Along with releasing 10 studio albums as a solo artist, Grammy Nominated Raul Midón – dubbed “an eclectic adventurist” by People magazine – has collaborated with such heroes as Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder and Bill Withers, along with contributing to recordings by Queen Latifah, Snoop Dogg and the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s She Hate Me. A native of New Mexico who was educated in the jazz program of the University of Miami – and who now lives in Maryland after years in New York City – Midón has earned acclaim the world over, with a fanbase that stretches from San Francisco to India, Amsterdam to Tokyo. A rapt critic for the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper wrote: “Midón has a lovely voice, a beautifully controlled tenor that can express anything from tenderness to passion… And the guy can play. His strumming has a flamenco flourish, but after a while, you realize he can do every kind of accompaniment he needs on acoustic guitar.”
For a glimpse of how magnetic Midón can be live, seek out on YouTube the clip of his appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman in 2006. Performing “State Of Mind,” the title track from his major-label debut, Midón unveils what would become his signature combination of silky voice and percussive guitar. His playing is a syncopated wonder in which bass, harmony and melodic lines fly from the fretboard in a way that belies the fact that all the music is being produced by just two hands. If that weren’t enough, Midón busts out his improvisational mouth-horn technique, in which he creates a bebop “trumpet” solo with his lips, earning himself a burst of mid-song applause from the audience. It’s the sort of performance that led the Huffington Post to describe how “he plays with such freedom and joy that his hands smile.”
The title of Midón’s 2017 release Bad Ass and Blind came from an apt description of its maker that soul icon Bill Withers endorsed; the album saw Midón collaborating with such top jazz players as trumpeter Nicholas Payton and pianist Gerald Clayton, and it earned the singer his GRAMMY nomination for “Best Jazz Vocal Performance.” NPR noted that the disc continues Midón’s “streak of records that cross boundaries with ease and head-turning musicality.” His live 2016 rendition of John Coltrane’s jazz classic “Giant Steps” – which sees him fly through all 12 keys on the guitar – earned more than a million views via Facebook, with no less than fusion hero Al Di Meola giving the performance a thumb’s up. Midón has also released the captivating CD/DVD Invisible Chains – Live from NYC, which documents an intimate concert in Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater from 2012.
Ever since being told by some when he was a child that his blindness meant that “you can’t do this, you can’t do that,” Midón has lived a life devoted to beating the odds and shattering stereotypes, learning his own lessons along the way. “As someone who has never seen, I’ve always felt at a disadvantage in that lyric writing is usually very visual,” he says. “People really relate to images, and I’ve never seen images. But what I realized early on is that you have to write from what you know, and I hear, touch and feel intensely – and those are sensations and experiences that everyone can relate to.”