Felix Cabrera is a rarity: a blues-oriented singer, harmonica player, and composer who spent most of his pre-teen years in Cuba. The bilingual Cabrera, who now lives in New York City, is not a blues purist; not everything he does adheres to a traditional 12-bar blues structure, and he has combined the blues with elements of rock, soul, funk, and Afro-Cuban music. But blues is his main focus, and it certainly isn't every day that one encounters a Cuban artist who does what Cabrera does. That isn't to say that he is the first Cuban musician who brought the feeling of the blues to his work. There have been plenty of Cuban jazz artists who played with the feeling of the blues -- Paquito D'Rivera, Arturo Sandoval, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, among many others -- and there have been many Cuban salsa artists who were influenced by soul, funk, or jazz. But a Cuban artist who, like Cabrera, actually has a blues orientation is the exception instead of the rule. Further, one seldom finds someone on the blues circuit who incorporates Afro-Cuban elements the way that Cabrera incorporates them; at times, Cabrera projects a vibe that brings to mind Carlos Santana doing "Black Magic Woman" or "Evil Ways." But when Cabrera applies Afro-Cuban elements, he does so in a subtle fashion, and many of his influences are not Latin artists. Cabrera's long list of non-Latin influences, direct or indirect, ranges from Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters to Paul Butterfield, Albert King, Charlie Musselwhite, and Jimi Hendrix. Also, there are times when Cabrera brings to mind War, a great ‘70s funk/soul band that had definite salsa/Afro-Cuban influences and could be quite bluesy at times; some of Cabrera's harmonica solos have hints of Lee Oskar, whose distinctive harmonica graced many of War's major hits back in the ‘70s.
Born in Havana, Cuba in 1949, Cabrera was 12 when, in 1961, he moved to Miami, a popular destination for Cubans then and now. But unlike many Cuban immigrants, he didn't remain in South Florida; in 1964, a 15-year-old Cabrera moved north to Union City, NJ, which is where he seriously got into the blues (on top of already liking salsa/Afro-Cuban music, rock and R&B). In 1974, Cabrera and guitarist Arthur Neilson (a frequent collaborator over the years) co-founded the A Train Blues Band, which favored a Chicago-minded blues sound but played around northern New Jersey and New York City. By the early ‘80s, Cabrera had left New Jersey for N.Y.C., where he formed a band called Felix & the Havanas in 1984. During their five-year run, Felix & the Havanas opened for major artists such as Dr. John, Bobby "Blue" Bland, and Wilson Pickett. It was during the ‘80s that Cabrera recorded his first album, Next, which was followed by his second album, Cu-Bop, Cu-Blues, in the late ‘90s. In 2001, Cabrera's third album, Pressure Cooker, was released on Fountainblue Entertainment, and his fourth album, For Green, came out on Si Records in 2004. ~ Alex Henderson