There may be no better model of what a percussionist can do than the one marked off by a certain 39-year-old triple threat. Cuban-born Pedro Pablo “Pedrito” Martinez has been wowing audiences worldwide, especially since his emergence on the U.S. scene by way of Canada in the late 1990s. And that “triple threat,” by the way, includes not only top-drawer drumming but writing and singing as well. One only has to listen to his debut recording, Rumba de la Isla, to get a real sense of what The New Yorker, in an article on Martinez from May of last year, points to as “the charisma of a mainstream star.”
The model in question, of course, is Martinez’ knack for being in the right place at the right time, and with all manner of musicians. The list of artists he’s backed, performed alongside with, and created for includes not only players from the Latin music scene – such as Paquito D’Rivera, Eddie Palmeiri (with whom, along with trumpeter Brian Lynch, Martinez grabbed his first Grammy with the album Simpatico), and master conguero Tata Guines – but yet another, seemingly longer list of musicians. Starting with jazz artists such as Joe Lovano and Cassandra Wilson, Martinez’ ever-growing C.V. includes sharing the stage and recording studio with, among many others, Willie Nelson, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, and Elton John. And let’s not forget his high-visibility stint with the rocket-charged Afro Cuban/Afro Beat band Yerba Buena.
It should come as no surprise, then, that for Rumba de la Isla, Martinez would branch out and feature novel, eclectic arrangements with a fair amount of singing, both individual as well as in harmony with others. And in focusing on Cuban and flamenco rumbas, Martinez is more than tipping his hat to someone referred to as the greatest flamenco artist ever, Camaron de la Isla. You could say these songs, formerly the grist for Isla’s interpretations, have now been taken over by Martinez in this soulful and lively tribute.
But the story of Pedrito Martinez, like his musical background, is varied to the point of becoming a whirligig of events and surprises. Consider, for example, his contributions to the successful and popular documentary Calle 54, or his important collaborations with reed player Jane Bunnett and her Spirits Of Havana band. Then there’s his winning the first-ever Afro-Latin Hand Drumming award in 2000 at the Thelonious Monk Institute Competition.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Needless to say, with all this activity, it was quite the challenge finding time to get Martinez to stop long enough to talk about his new album and what’s taken place thus far in his ever-expanding musical universe.
“I grew up in a musical family,” Martinez recalls. “My mom used to sing, and my uncle was a great conguero from Cuba back in the ’60s. And my other uncle taught us how to dance.” But the influences went beyond his family. “Tata Guines was a great conguero player; Changuito, of course; Giovanni Hidalgo. In the neighborhood where I grew up, there was a lot of music going on. In front of my house, the classical band used to rehearse, and I would check them out.” And then he adds another interesting bit of personal history: “I never appeared in any school of music in Cuba,” adding that his musical education came from the street, and not the classroom. “If you want to learn the Afro Cuban music you need to learn that in the streets.”
And while he started playing music as early as age 11, discovering his newfound love of bata and congas, Martinez didn’t really enter the world of music as a paid musician until he was well into his teens. Among those he performed with included his idol, Tata Guines, and the rumba and folkloric Afro Cuban group Munequitos de Matanzas. “When I was in Cuba, I was very curious to learn different kinds of music,” he says, noting how he had to really work at hearing new sounds, given Cuba’s restrictions on imported music. “I was learning from different parts of the country. It was crazy; the way I learned is the way I play now. Because you know we play bata and sing at the same time. That’s part of our rules, to get in any Afro Cuban group in Cuba: to dance, play, and sing at the same time.” The “triple threat,” so to speak.
By the time Martinez met Canadian reed great Jane Bunnett in Havana in 1997 during the Havana Jazz Festival, he had already traveled to Europe and elsewhere, getting his first taste of the larger musical world. But it was Bunnett’s accidental appearance in his life that forever changed the trajectory of Martinez’ musical arc.
“When I met Jane Bunnett, I was 21,” Martinez recalls. Someone who has worked in Havana many times (her longstanding Spirits Of Havana says it all), Bunnett’s visit in ’97 included a surprise. “You know, she found me accidentally,” Martinez remembers. “It was in the jazz plaza, in Havana, at the jazz festival. I was playing there with one of my mentors, Francisco Mela. I was playing there with him, and she saw me perform with him, and she said, ’I want to take you to Canada.’ And she came back after that gig in Cuba and she made this band, and I was part of the band. And she brought the band to Canada for a tour, and then in the United States.” That was in 1998, the year he moved to New York City, a move he admits “was not easy,” given his Cuban roots. Add to that Martinez had to learn English – “a crazy language” – and you get the picture of someone relying on the kindness and generosity of friends and musical colleagues. He started playing the usual gigs around town, exposing himself to all the music the Big Apple had to offer, especially jazz. “And that’s when I wanted to stay,” he says.
As if Martinez needed another reason to stay in the U.S., he eventually found himself in the first-ever Afro-Latin Hand Drumming Showdown at the 2000 Thelonious Monk Competition. “Everything was happening accidentally,” he says. “I met this guy Felix Sanabria, and he sent me an email about an invitation from the Monk Competition that those people sent to him, not to me. You know, one of the requirements was you had to be no older than 30, and he was already 40 years old. So he was telling me, ’I am too old.’”
Long story short, Martinez let it be known he was interested, and was eventually selected from a list of upwards of 100 applicants that was reduced to five. Martinez ended up performing a piece he selected, as required. The Monk audience saw him singing as well as playing. And what they witnessed were three congas, a bongo, one cajon, a set of batas, and one shekere being dominated. Martinez played a solo and subsequently was joined by an orchestra. “And I won,” he says, no doubt with a healthy dose of pride. “It opened so many doors for me, man. I was able to get a deal with Remo, Vic Firth, Sabian ... I was able to sign with all the percussion companies. And a lot of interviews, and magazines came.”