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  • Carnegie Hall Presents
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Jeff Tamarkin on Pedrito Martinez

Whatever else the recent re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba might bring, one beneficiary will be music fans the world over. Despite a decades-long ban on official communication with our southern neighbor, musicians from both the island and the US have always managed to influence one another profoundly. Now, finally, they can do so openly.

Pedrito Martinez, the 42-year-old Havana-born percussionist, vocalist, and bandleader is the quintessential creator of the kind of great art that results when Cuban musicians marry elements of the island’s native culture to sounds they absorb from the US.

“Our roots are very much in Afro-Cuban music-folkloric styles like rumba, the ceremonial music of Santería (or Yoruba, the original name of this African religion) and Timba, which is a relatively modern Cuban style of music that is very high-energy and powerful and has lots of American R&B and funk influences. There are also many jazz elements in our music, of course,” says Martinez, who arrived in New York City at age 25 and soon after took first place in the annual Thelonious Monk International Afro-Latin Jazz Hand Drum Competition.

Performing with Martinez at the Zankel Hall gig is Edgar Pantoja-Aleman (keyboard and vocals), Álvaro Benavides (electric bass and vocals), and Jhair Sala (cowbell, bongos, and vocals). “Everyone in the group is originally from Latin America: Álvaro is from Venezuela, Jhair is Peruvian, Edgar is from Santiago de Cuba, and I am from Havana. So we all share the same rhythmic vocabulary,” says Martinez, adding that the group performs “without horns, drums, or timbales. This is very unusual, but we all sing and we are very much in sync with one another every second. The consideration, love, and respect that we have for the music makes us sound so powerful.”

The Pedrito Martinez Group’s performance includes music from its new album, Havana Dreams, recorded at Havana’s legendary EGREM Studio. “Returning to Cuba was a dream come true for me,” says Martinez, who, in his New York years, has also maintained a prolific career as a sideman for everyone from Wynton Marsalis to Eddie Palmieri to Bruce Springsteen. “The music of the new album is so fresh, soulful, and deeply rich. Our chemistry is based on the years we have been together and on the fact that we are always listening very carefully to every moment of inspiration and responding in some way—even if that might mean making no sound in order to give the others space to speak. It’s a constant conversation that is going on between all of us.

“I think versatility is achieved only with great effort, hard work, and years of studying,” he adds. “Achieving this has been one of my goals since I arrived in the United States 18 years ago. I realized the importance of making the sacrifice because diversity is a great long-term benefit.”

Jeff Tamarkin is the associate editor of JazzTimes magazine.



The Pedrito Martinez Group
Pedrito Martinez
Friday, February 19 at 9 PM
The Pedrito Martinez Group

Cuban-born Pedrito Martinez—a dynamic percussionist and powerful vocalist—is a modern proponent of the Afro-Cuban rumba tradition and the batá rhythms and vocal chants of the music of Yoruba and Santería.

Part of Late Nights at Zankel Hall.