Pedrito Martinez: From The Streets To The Stars

pedrito martinez

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.

Havana Roots, Havana Dreams

“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.

Crossing Paths, Meeting The World

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.”

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Following the Monk Competition, Martinez was even more engaged in working with name players, like another famous reed player, Paquito D’Rivera. “Since I’ve been in the United States, I’ve been playing with so many people, and I’ve been recording many albums, different kinds of music,” he adds. “I’ve been playing with Paquito, and I learned how to play milongo, which is a folkloric music from Argentina. Paquito is very open-minded, very curious about a lot of different kinds of music.” And from there, Martinez eventually went on to tour with and open shows for name players such as Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, and Dave Matthews. And, truth be told, he became, essentially, a “gun for hire,” a label that could be used today, in 2013, to describe someone with talent that anyone with a name could call to add that special something to their music. For example, the day after our interview, Martinez was heading to a recording studio to add his distinctive percussive touches to a new album by fellow Cuban expat phenom, pianist Alfredo Rodriguez. But there are others, especially artists that come from the more Anglo side of the music world. “When you come from Cuba, a lot of people get curious about what you do as a musician. There’s a lot of respect there, if you are a musician. When you come here, they want a very different kind of music. Because in Cuba the only kind of music you play is Cuban music.”

The Life Beyond

That musical universe has also included Martinez orbiting TED2013, in California in February, the latest edition of the idea-driven, celebrity-laden conclave TED Talks. “He is simply one of the best musicians in the country,” TED music advisor Bill Bragin was quoted as saying. “As a musician’s musician, he leaves other musicians’ jaws on the ground.”

pedrito martinez

Martinez’ Setup

Drums
1 11.75" x 30" Conga
2 12.5" x 30" Tumbadora
3 14" x 30" Super Tumba

LP Bata Drums
4 9" Omele
5 6.75" Oconolo
6 12.5" Iya
7 LP Americana String-Style Cajon

For drum set, Pedrito Martinez plays a Yamaha kit, Zildjian cymbals, Gibraltar hardware, Remo heads, and Vic Firth sticks.

According to Martinez’ management, there were more than a few activities that had everyone on the go for days on end. Even though the event is called the TED Talks, they have a select number of musical performers. Pedrito and the Pedrito Martinez Group had been brought in to play, not to speak. On that Tuesday, Martinez played a bata solo and sang an Orisha chant in the main theater at TED in Long Beach. Then the Pedro Martinez Group was driven to the TED Active conference in Palm Springs, where the group played in Old Town Square. The next day they were shuttled back to Long Beach, where the group performed a song in the main theater. The next afternoon PMG did an informal performance at the Citibank Social Space. It all ended the following night when they played for the TED after-party at the Westin Hotel in Long Beach. Needless to say, with celebrity/artist-types like Cameron Diaz, Paul Simon, and Goldie Hawn coming up to him and thanking him for being there, Martinez was getting the message that he was connecting, and connecting in a big way.

In the midst of this swirl of activity, there is the current release, Rumba de la Isla, and the studio, a world far away from the “stars and bars,” so to speak. The arrangements, in particular, seem to benefit from Martinez’ focused attention on the music. “I did a demo, in my own studio in my house, where I put together all the rhythm tracks, all the vocals together, and I sent it to the cats,” he recalls. “And then when we got together to rehearse, a lot of great music came out from each of them, with great ideas, and we got to playing.” In fact, the arrangements and room for playing that allows guitarist and Pirana player Nino Josele and legendary Cuban violinist Alfredo de la Fe (along with the vocals throughout) to shine help make Rumba de la Isla an exceptional listen. Also on board is bassist John Benitez, percussionist and vocalist Roman Diaz, and, with harmonizing vocals, Xiomara Laugart and Abraham Rodriguez. “Yeah, nobody did that before; it was very unusual combination, it was very simple to work with them,” he says, mentioning how the blend of flamenco and South American musical influences from these different artists from different countries helped to create a very satisfying mix. “They worked out all the kinks.” In a word from Martinez, it was “perfect.”

Beyond Beyond

“It’s crazy; it’s full of work,” Martinez says when asked what the rest of 2013 looks like. Referring to one very recent project with Gonzalo Rubalcaba, his love for his work is almost palpable when he says, “He is one of the greatest piano players in Cuba.”

As you read this, Martinez will have just been in New Orleans performing at the Congo Rhythms Festival, and, by invitation from Herbie Hancock and The Monk Institute, part of “Jazz Day” in Istanbul during late April and early May. From there, Martinez’ schedule continues – as he says – to be “crazy,” with appearances at the Brooklyn Bridge Park for Celebrate Brooklyn, the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl in June, followed by shows at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, Montreal Jazz Festival, and the River To River Jazz Festival. Beyond that, there’s even talk of a possible Asian tour with new friend and colleague Steve Gadd.

And, of course, there’s the even newer album he just completed, to be released by Motema Records, date yet to be determined. Produced by Steve Gadd and Martinez, it’ll be simply titled The Pedrito Martinez Group and will mark the record debut of Martinez as bandleader. There’ll be songs composed and arranged by the group as well as songs composed by Martinez himself, with some of the material having been written and recorded by other Cuban musicians. Special guests will include guitarist John Scofield, chromatic harmonica player Gary Schriener, percussionist Marc Quinones and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. And who, exactly, is the PMG? Currently it’s comprised of Martinez on percussion and lead vocals, Ariacne Trujillo on keyboards and lead vocal, Alvaro Benavides on electric bass and background vocals, and Jhair Sala on percussion and background vocals. Incidentally, producer Gadd will also lend his unique drumming sounds to the proceedings.

“I just finished this new record with my quartet,” Martinez says, almost beaming. He adds that this most likely will be the group he tours the newer album with, a tour that likely will include special guests on guitar and violin, not unlike the Rumba de la Isla album. Referring to the band, he exclaims, “The rhythm section is killing.” If it’s anything like the rhythm section on Rumba de la Isla, listeners better hold onto their seats.