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Jazz Notes: Cuba’s Pedrito Martinez on His Cuban Childhood and Influences

By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, February 3, 2017

In anticipation of percussionist Pedrito Martinez collaborating with pianist Alfredo Rodriguez at Jazz Standard (February 9-10), the following is the life-story bio of the Cuba-born maestro of the beats (in five parts).

Part 1: Percussionist and Vocalist Extraordinaire

Part 2:  Growing up in the barrio, Martinez faced challenges to do what he wanted to do: play music. “My family was poor, but there was a lot of love from my mom, dad and brothers,” he said. “I had a lot of friends in the neighborhood who played music, so we all learned in the streets.” Even though he wanted to attend music school to learn more, the Cuban government nixed that idea. “First of all I grew up in the ghetto, and I had no opportunity to make a connection with the people in the schools. You needed a connection. I didn’t have one,” he said. “But in the end, it was all very good because a lot of what you learn in the streets they don’t teach you at the school.”

In fact, he learned Afro-Cuban music deeply through his Yoruba-based santería religious life. Cayo Hueso is recognized as a neighborhood that served as one of the important birthplaces for the connection between religion and music—where African religious practices led to conga-charged music. Music and dance played a critical role in the ceremonial life of the Yoruban religious practice with the batá, imported to Cuba along with slaves from Nigeria, serving as the primary ceremonial drum.

At the age of 15, conguero Román Díaz asked Martinez if he could be a last-minute substitute vocalist for a santería ceremony he was performing. The two became close during this period. “Román became like my godfather in religion,” said Martinez. “When I was young in Cuba, he protected me and he introduced me to a lot of musicians. He also got me out of Cuba three different times when I was playing in his band—to Costa Rica, the Canary Islands, Paris. It was very special. He’s been one of my mentors, a hero.” (Díaz, who came to New York in 1999, is featured on two Habana Dreams songs while Martinez produced his debut-as-leader Motéma album last year, L’ó Da Fún Bàtá.]

As a result, Martinez delved more deeply into his spirituality, finding the wellspring for his music that continues today. “For me, the most important part of the religion is the music,” he said. “Sometimes religion can be very controversial or the reason for polemics, but that’s because they don’t understand it. They don’t love. When I talk about my religious life, I talk about the music. It’s given me all I need—the tenacity, the discipline, the soul.”

As a composer (he wrote or co-wrote five of Habana Dreams’ nine tunes), Martinez says that when he goes into his room with all his deities displayed, he finds his freshest music ideas that eventually get turned into songs. A santerían priest, he performs for local communities in New Jersey, the Bronx and Brooklyn where, he said, “People love the music and how deep you can get into the spiritual. That’s the spine. All my ideas come from that spine.”

A major turning point for Martinez came when Canadian flutist/saxophonist Jane Bunnett, who had recorded her pivotal Spirits of Havana album celebrating Afro-Cuban music in 1992 (the first of several recordings celebrating the music of Cuba), returned to the island in 1998 and saw him perform at Casa de la Cultura de Centro Habana in percussionist Pacho Quinto’s polyrhythmic rumba band that was playing Yoruban ceremonial music. Bunnett decided to enlist the entire band to tour with her and her husband trumpeter Larry Cramer in Canada and the U.S. “I owe Jane a lot,” Martinez said. “The way it worked in Cuba at the time was if someone from the outside wanted to tour a group they could do it. I couldn’t do it on my own. They wouldn’t let me. No one could get out unless someone invited you. I learned a lot from touring with Jane, and really it was the first time I played Latin jazz with all the singing, dancing and playing.”

Martinez was 25 and he could envision a better world ahead. He didn’t return to Cuba, but instead settled into a Cuban/Latin community in New Jersey. “I saw a big potential to see a better future as a musician,” he says. “I wanted to open my mind to the other worlds—and I did it. It was the best decision I made in my life.” He already had a taste for the world of music outside of his experience as a player—listening at night to the forbidden rock ‘n’ roll radio stations in the U.S. (90 miles away) where he heard bands like Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, AC/DC and Kool & the Gang, and artists Michael Jackson and Elton John, among others. “We had that in Cuba even though it wasn’t legal to listen to because of the political situation,” he said. “We loved it. All the bass players, the drummers, the singers were influenced by American music—rock, hip-hop, jazz.”

Editor’s Note: A portion of this text originally appeared in truncated form in ‘DownBeat’ magazine. This is the long-form version. Like in film, there’s the director’s cut; consider this the writer’s cut.


Pedrito Martinez performs with Alfredo Rodriguez on February 9 and 10 at Jazz Standard, 116 East 27th Street. For more information and to purchase tickets click here.


Cover: Pedrito Martinez; photo: Danielle Moir.


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