Play, sing, dance … re­peat Pedrito Martinez at the New Mex­ico Jazz Festival

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that to be a mu­si­cian in Cuba, one must learn three things: how to play an in­stru­ment, how to sing, and how to dance. “Yes, yes, it’s true,” said Cuban-born per­cus­sion­ist Pedrito Martinez, whose quar­tet ap­pears as part of the New Mex­ico Jazz Festival on Wed­nes­day, July 20, at St. John’s Col­lege, and the fol­low­ing two nights at the Out­post in Al­bu­querque. “The hard­est thing for me was the danc­ing. Cuban dance, those Afro-Cuban dance steps, of­fer a lot of ways to go. You have to be re­ally se­ri­ous and give it time if you want to learn it cor­rectly. Then you have to do those three things si­mul­ta­ne­ously. It’s not easy, but it’s what peo­ple love.”

Though he re­ceived no for­mal mu­si­cal train­ing, the Ha­vana neigh­bor­hood he grew up in, Cayo Hueso, pro­vided plenty of op­por­tu­nity for mix­ing the three in­gre­di­ents of Cuban mu­sic. His mother was a singer, he had an un­cle who was a conguero, and another who ex­celled at danc­ing. There was a the­ater across the street from his home where clas­si­cal Cuban or­ches­tras played. He learned the rhyth­mic tra­di­tions of San­tería, the Yoruba-in­spired Caribbean re­li­gion with roots in Africa, from a lo­cal san­tero. “A lot of what I bring to

my mu­sic comes from the Yoruba cul­ture,” he said. “Us­ing the batá drum, a lot of the melodies and ideas; I grab ev­ery­thing I can from that cul­ture. It’s a big part of who I am.” By the time he was in his twen­ties, Martinez was play­ing seven nights a week at Ha­vana ho­tels for a dol­lar a month. But he was gain­ing in­valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence ap­pear­ing with such ven­er­a­ble Cuban mu­si­cians as Tata Güines, an Afro-Cuban per­cus­sion­ist who had worked with ev­ery­one from Arse­nio Ro­dríguez and Chano Pozo to Dizzy Gille­spie and Frank Si­na­tra. “Tata be­came a men­tor. I played with him for three years and learned a lot.”

Martinez’s ca­reer took a de­cided turn when he left Ha­vana in 1998 to join Cana­dian sax­o­phon­ist Jane Bun­nett’s en­sem­ble Spir­its of Ha­vana for a North Amer­i­can tour that ended in New York City. “I knew as soon as she in­vited me that it was go­ing to be a great op­por­tu­nity,” he said. “It was my first time in Canada and the United States, and I knew the great­est, most amaz­ing mu­si­cians were there in New York. But I never planned to stay. I thought I’d take three months and learn some things, play with ev­ery­one I could find. After awhile, I felt it was my time to stay and give my­self over to be­com­ing a bet­ter mu­si­cian.”

Martinez crashed at the New York apart­ment of a Cuban drum­mer who had heard the young Martinez play back in Ha­vana. His ré­sumé quickly grew to in­clude per­form­ing with an im­pres­sive list of both jazz and pop bands, in­clud­ing those of sax­o­phon­ist Paquito D’Rivera, trum­peter Wyn­ton Marsalis, and key­boardist Ed­die Palmieri, as well as rock mu­si­cians Sting, Bruce Spring­steen, and Paul Si­mon. In 2000, judged by a distin­guished panel of per­cus­sion mu­si­cians that in­cluded Ray Bar­retto and Ba­batunde Olatunji, he won the Th­elo­nious Monk In­ter­na­tional Afro-Latin Hand-Drum Com­pe­ti­tion, the only time the pres­ti­gious con­test has fo­cused on per­cus­sion­ists other than trap drum­mers. He was in the orig­i­nal lineup of ground­break­ing cross­over Latin-hip hop en­sem­ble Yerba Buena and, in 2005, founded The Pedrito Martinez Group. The band’s long run of ap­pear­ances at Man­hat­tan’s Guan­tanam­era restaurant drew a celebrity crowd and Martinez made valu­able con­nec­tions. Its first record­ing, pro­duced by drum­mer Steve Gadd and in­clud­ing ap­pear­ances from trum­peter Marsalis and gui­tarist John Scofield, was nom­i­nated in 2015 for the Grammy Awards Best Latin Jazz Album.

Martinez’s new re­lease, Ha­bana Dreams, makes for some­thing of a prodi­gal-son story. Tak­ing ad­van­tage of newly re­laxed travel re­stric­tions be­tween the U.S. and Cuba, Martinez re­turned to Ha­vana last Oc­to­ber to record at the his­toric Es­tu­dios Are­ito of Cuban record­ing la­bel EGREM. “There are a lot of great stu­dios in New York, but it was amaz­ing to be back where I was born and to have the op­por­tu­nity to add my three older brothers record­ing with us, to have my old­est friends there in the stu­dio. It was the sort of magic ex­pe­ri­ence that I wouldn’t have had any­where else. And the very first thing about do­ing it there was record­ing in the place where all the great Cuban or­ches­tras had recorded. It’s the place where Ry Cooder recorded The Buena Vista So­cial Club. The same room. The en­ergy there was amaz­ing.”

Along with Marsalis and vo­cal­ists in­clud­ing Angélique Kidjo and Is­sac Del­gado, the disc con­tains mu­sic from Rubén Blades, the com­poser-singer whom Martinez had met at Guan­tanam­era. “He’s a great man, a very smart guy, and an ex­tra­or­di­nary com­poser. We’ve been col­lab­o­rat­ing with him for a cou­ple years now. I’ve lis­tened to his mu­sic since I was young. He’s a hero.” Martinez agreed that Blades, who con­trib­utes a never-be­fore recorded song, “An­tadilla,” to Ha­bana Dreams, has made an in­flu­ence on his own com­pos­ing. “Def­i­nitely. Ev­ery time I write, I think about Rubén and a cou­ple of his lyrics, how they grab at­ten­tion for his par­tic­u­lar mes­sage. He’s a ge­nius with lyrics.”

I didn’t just learn mu­sic in the streets. Talk­ing to the peo­ple, I learned dis­ci­pline, tenac­ity, and fo­cus. Peo­ple were very poor there. They may not have known how to read, but they were smart in their own way. And they had big hearts. The street gave me the pas­sion to con­tinue and be bet­ter ev­ery day. — Pedrito Martinez

The mu­sic on Ha­bana Dreams fea­tures the Martinez Group’s core mem­bers — Edgar Pan­toja-Ale­man on key­boards, bassist Alvaro Be­na­vides, and per­cus­sion­ist Jhair Sala (all sched­uled to be at the Len­sic and Out­post per­for­mances, and yes, all also sing and dance). It’s a hy­brid of new ap­proaches firmly an­chored with tra­di­tional rhythms. In ad­di­tion to the guest vo­cal­ists, there are added gui­tars and lay­ers of per­cus­sion­ists. Rap lyrics, la­beled “jazz po­etry” in the liner notes, is aired, and the elec­tric key­boards give the mu­sic a con­tem­po­rary sheen. Martinez said that his sound is not rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the timba move­ment, the mix of Amer­i­can funk, rap, and salsa that’s cur­rently pop­u­lar in Cuba. “Timba isn’t re­ally a big in­flu­ence on me. The main part of my style is the Afro-Cuban mu­sic I grew up lis­ten­ing to. But I’ve been in the U.S. over 17 years, and de­cided to open up the mu­sic by in­cor­po­rat­ing jazz, funk, and pop styles. Like Cuban mu­sic, there’s so many el­e­ments to the cul­ture, so many styles here. Timba is one of those el­e­ments I’m us­ing, but it re­ally doesn’t de­fine my mu­sic.”

There’s another el­e­ment heard on Ha­bana Dreams, one that’s less tan­gi­ble than the plunk of bass and the rip­ple of con­gas, a cer­tain spirit that seems to con­nect to the his­toric record­ing stu­dio and the sur­round­ing streets where Martinez learned his craft. “I didn’t just learn mu­sic in the streets,” he said. “Talk­ing to the peo­ple, I learned dis­ci­pline, tenac­ity, and fo­cus. Peo­ple were very poor there. They may not have known how to read, but they were smart in their own way. And they had big hearts. The street gave me the pas­sion to con­tinue and be bet­ter ev­ery day. I owe a lot to those peo­ple who showed me how to live life, showed me the right way to go. That’s what I tried to ab­sorb while back in Cuba. It’s my medicine.”

Is he con­cerned that some of that spirit might be lost as Cuba opens up more and more to Amer­i­can busi­ness and trav­el­ers? “I don’t want that to hap­pen. But I’m not re­ally wor­ried. The Cubans are very happy peo­ple, they are sur­vivors. Hope­fully that magic — the old cars, the mu­sic, the mys­ti­cism — won’t go away. Cubans are used to com­pet­ing within their own cul­ture, of go­ing their own way even as they share to­gether. That’s not go­ing away.”

From left to right, Edgar Pan­toja-Alemán, Pedrito Martinez, Ál­varo Be­na­vides, and Jhair Sala (kneel­ing); photo Daniel Moir

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