Pedrito Martinez

The Cuban-born percussionist has been slowly building his profile in the States since waving goodbye to his homeland fifteen years ago and settling in New York City, where his local performances have become the gig to catch. Today, the buzz about his skills, and about his blazing group, is at a fever pitch.

Story by Jeff Potter
Photos by Paul La Raia

It might seem surprising to find a musician who’s in constant demand with the world’s top artists gigging several nights weekly in a narrow, no-cover-charge restaurant. But that’s precisely the tack that burgeoning percussion star Pedro “Pedrito” Martinez wisely chose. Despite a date book filled with high-profile sideman sessions, the Cuban-born rhythm master/vocalist has held firm in his belief that creating and evolving his own great band is best done the old-fashioned way.

Guantanamera, an unassuming Cuban eatery on 8th Avenue in midtown Manhattan, became a live workshop, an incubator for Martinez’s vision. While casual diners stroll in for the heaping platters of pollo asado, music icons flock over to see what the buzz is all about. The gig is ongoing, but perhaps not for long. One devoted repeat patron is Steve Gadd, who eventually produced the Pedrito Martinez Group’s self-titled debut, released this past October on Motéma records.

It’s all been worth the wait. The PMG delivers an uplifting, ecstatically grooving blend of Afro-Cuban elements both modern and folkloric, plus jazz, funk, R&B, blues, and pop. In its stripped-down format, the quartet manages a remarkable diversity of textures through the playful mastery of shifting and superimposed rhythms, all played with an uncanny knack for tight ESP-like improvisation.

Catalyzing the band is the charismatic, loose-limbed Martinez, taking flight with his soaring, passionate vocals while grooving on congas, multiple batá drums, cajon, and assorted percussion. Jhair Sala, a former student of Pedrito’s, masterfully handles bongos, cowbell, and assorted percussion, at one with his mentor. Fiery double threat Ariacne Trujillo offers alternate lead vocals and keyboards, while bassist Alvaro Benavides lends a funky edge. All four musicians are strong singers, punching out syncopated three- and four-part harmonies. Above all, the group’s backbone is an ensemble percussive approach rooted in a deep understanding of rhythmic possibilities.

Martinez was born in Havana in 1973 and hungrily absorbed the traditions of Afro-Cuban music. He was also influenced by the sounds of American jazz, rock, and funk, which he heard on LPs carried back to Cuba by those lucky enough to travel abroad. At age eleven, he was already singing and playing percussion with the Cuban masters Tata Güines and Los Muñequitos de Matanzas. While touring in 1998 with saxophonist Jane Bunnett’s Spirits of Havana band in Canada, Martinez decided not to return home and made his way to New York.

The newcomer quickly picked up gigs, and a further breakthrough occurred when a friend tipped him off that the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition was initiating an Afro-Cuban hand- drumming category. Martinez applied and walked away with the top prize.

Since arriving stateside, the multi-talent has graced more than a hundred discs and has performed and/or recorded with top jazz, Latin, pop, and rock artists, including Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Paquito D’Rivera, Eddie Palmieri, Joe Lovano, Wynton Marsalis, Paul Simon, Cassandra Wilson, Steve Turre, Eliane Elias, and Meshell Ndegeocello. Pedrito has also served in the house band for Sting’s annual Rainforest Foundation benefit concerts, backing headliners such as Elton John, James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen, and Lady Gaga.

Drummer Daniel Freedman, who included Martinez on his CD Bamako by Bus, tells Modern Drummer, “I’ve never met anyone who combines modern elevated technique with incredibly deep roots like he does. He’s open-minded, and his attitude is incredibly positive.”

Saxophonist Yosvany Terry, a friend and fellow Cuban expatriate, has featured Martinez on several of his own CDs, including Today’s Opinion. “He’s coming from the vast heritage of the Afro-Cuban legacy,” Terry says of Pedrito. “But at the same time he’s trying to deepen the knowledge of his own heritage. He’s never in a comfortable zone where he feels that he has ‘arrived.’ He has a humongous curiosity and a great interest in learning and growing as a musician. This is one of the qualities that separates him from the rest.”

Pedrito Martinez most certainly has arrived. So go experience him at a major festival or at Carnegie Hall. Or maybe just over a casual chicken dinner.

MD: The new PMG record includes guest artists on several tracks, but that doesn’t detract from the core sound that makes the group so special. And happily, the album wasn’t overproduced.

Pedrito: My initial idea for playing in the restaurant was: I’m going to get a great quartet that is going to fit in any format; we’re going to be a rhythm section for any singer or any drummer or trumpet player. And then it became a killin’ band—just with our four pieces.

Our manager came up with the idea of inviting people on the record that really loved our band, people who had come by many times to check out the band. The first person that came to mind was John Scofield, who was one of the first people who came to Guantanamera and loved it. And Wynton Marsalis, who is a great friend of mine, played on a cut. I’ve been involved in many projects with him at Lincoln Center and other places.

I don’t want to overdub many things that we don’t use on the stage. There are a few shakers and little added details, but nothing overpowering. We just wanted the record to be the way we are, the way we play, who we are. We want to be real, one hundred percent, in live performance and on records.

MD: Steve Gadd coproduced and also played on a couple tracks. How did it benefit the sessions to have a producer who was also a rhythm master?

Pedrito: He brought the record to another level and opened it up to another audience too. First of all, because of the huge name he’s got. Second, because of the big knowledge he has, the great person he is, and the amazing drummer he is.

I picked him as a producer because he was humble enough to get to Guantanamera, and he learned our music. I’m not just telling you he played it—he learned it perfectly, because he loved it so much. Then we played several gigs together. It was a dream come true, brother.

MD: Jane Bunnett observed that when she met you in Cuba, she was surprised that someone so young was so seriously immersed in the folkloric traditions.

Pedrito: Since I was little in Cuba, I was always curious about things, about changing things—in a good direction. A lot of old people that I learned batá from, they said that I learned very fast. It’s an instrument that has so many rhythms and variations, so I learned them in two or three months—all of them. My mama’s brother, he was one of the greatest congueros from Cuba. His name was Antonio Campos. My mama’s a great singer, and my three brothers are musicians too.

But I was too hyper—too into music since I was little. I never went to school [for music]. I learned everything in the street. And people supported me right away, because they saw that I had talent. I’m a person who has always loved to learn.

MD: You were raised in the tradition of the rumbero, which involves simultaneous singing and dancing along with percussion playing. Is it essential that an artist master all three skills to truly understand the tradition?

Pedrito: Yeah, one thing transports you to the other thing. One thing obligates you to move to the other. There’s no way that you can stay in the folklore world and not know the dancing or not know the music. One has to be right next to the other; they need each other. In the folkloric, music and dance have to be together to function perfectly.

Believe me, eighty percent of the folklore musicians in Cuba, they know how to dance, sing, and play. Even in the modern popular music, they try to put the dancing and singing together. It’s part of the show.

MD: When you won the Thelonious Monk competition, a couple of the judges were musicians you had worked with before, yet they didn’t know you were an instrumentalist!

Pedrito: Yes, Yosvany was there, and “Patato” [Carlos Valdes], who I had worked with in the Conga Kings. With that band I was just doing background vocals, playing shekere, and dancing a little bit. It was a big surprise; they didn’t even know I was a conguero. After the show, I spoke with Yosvany and he said, “Pedro, when I saw you walk out, I thought, What is HE doing there? He’s not a percussion player!

That opened so many doors for me. I was very happy about that contest. I was just two years in this country. I was very new and nobody knew me. I just wanted to get here and do my thing. And it happened.

MD: On your previous non-PMG record in a very different format, Rumba de la Isla, you address the long history of interconnections between Spanish flamenco and Afro-Cuban rumba.

Pedrito: There’s a giant connection. The influence for rumba came from flamenco. They call it rumba flamenca. We call it rumba Cubana or just rumba. I came from that.

All the Cuban melodies are very similar to the rumba flamenca we were used to hearing when we lived in Cuba. This record was a tribute to the great singer Camarón de la Isla. When the record company, Calle 54, came to me to offer the project, I already knew that music.

MD: But it wasn’t literal. It seemed to be a hybrid; you made it your own.

Pedrito: We were trying to keep the melodies as close as we could to the original ones, because Camarón was a big idol in Spain and I wanted to make sure people were going to recognize the melodies right away. What we added to that was the rumba patterns and the chorus.

MD: A formative part of your musical upbringing was playing percussion for religious ceremonies.

Pedrito: That’s very common in Cuba, especially in the area where I grew up. It’s a very poor neighborhood called Cayo Hueso. There was a lot of Santería, a lot of Afro-Cuban culture involved—a lot of rumba, and private ceremonies. So I grew up seeing that.

MD: And you continue doing ceremonies even today.

Pedrito: Yes! That’s part of who I am, brother. And in all the records I’ve been doing since I got to the United States, I’ve been putting in Yoruba chants, batá rhythms—pieces of Afro-Cuban culture. It’s honest, so it’s powerful; it’s who I am.

I play most every weekend in private houses, in ceremonies called tambor de fundamento. Those are the real ceremonies we play for the orishas [deities] in the Santería culture. All the people are initiated in the religion. They salute their orishas; they say hi to their orishas by putting their head on top of each batá drum, and they put some money in the plate in front of the biggest one. In the ceremony there are deities with different colors and attributes. There are three batá players and one singer.

MD: And it’s a long nonstop drumming workout?

Pedrito: Yes, they start at four o’clock and finish at around nine o’clock. The vibe and the ideas you get from there are giant, beautiful. Every time I get out from one of those, I come out with a new melody or something else to write for the group. All the religions I’ve been practicing since I was little, it’s all about the music. 

MD: The way the PMG interacts is astonishing. When you’re grooving as a rhythm section, it’s often hard to discern the line between the improvisatory flow and preplanned hits and figures. And there are sudden surprising groove dropout spaces with tricky reentries. Is much of that predetermined?

Pedrito: No, not at all. That’s the result of playing many years together. The other percussion player, Jhair, is the youngest member of the band. I got together with him when he was nine years old. He watched my whole career, since I got to the United States. He was with me all the time at all of the venues, checking out all the recordings, all the bands I was playing with. So he knows exactly what to play. Even without me looking at him, he knows what I’m going to do. We never get together to plan the breaks. All the breaks and things that happen on stage with this band come natural.

It also comes from having a steady gig in the city three nights a week, three sets a night. That’s a lot. That’s what makes the band tight. And everybody comes here to check out the band.

MD: You’re also an accomplished drumset player. What do drummers need to realize about successfully playing with hand percussionists, especially regarding this evolving language of Afro-Cuban grooves?

Pedrito: When a drummer plays all the time with a percussion player, or knows how to play percussion, that makes the key difference. So many percussionists, including me, have been checking out a lot of the greatest drummers—learning from them and putting it into congas. Why can’t the drummers do that with us? There are great things they can learn from percussion to put in their own repertory. When drummers don’t check percussion players, there’s something missing.

MD: Do you believe drummers can play that music authentically only if they know both sides of the coin?

Pedrito: Definitely. They are just afraid to jump on it—a new world. Drummers from here and outside of Cuba in general are afraid to get involved in the Latin world. They don’t know that it’s going to open up a lot of things for them.

When I play with drummers that love percussion and have an idea of what hand percussion is, they lock with me, they lock with the rhythm section. When a drummer has no idea, we cannot lock; he’s playing in his world and I’m in my world. It’s the same music, but it doesn’t sound the same as if they know the percussion.

MD: What should drummers better understand technically?

Pedrito: Most of them are more into the technique than taste. The way to play is with your heart. Unfortunately, so many people get interested in a drummer doing so many fast things rather than trying to play melody on the drums. For me, it’s all about melody. And groove. And space. Taste! Let your heart tell you where to go. Technique is going to destroy the world of the drum.

MD: That’s what’s great about the PMG. It’s very complex, but that’s not the point. Even when the music is rhythmically disorienting, the groove is still foremost.

Pedrito: The batá has much rhythmic displacement. And I put that into my music, so people sometimes get confused with the time—they don’t know where the 1 is. We’re always playing around with the time.

MD: But it’s such a seamless, danceable flow; it never feels mathematical.

Pedrito: It’s natural. That’s what we’ve wanted to do.

Tools of the Trade

Martinez plays LP percussion, including four Classic wood congas, two tumbas, two congas, an Americana string cajon, and a set of three batá drums.