Cuba, and then some: Pedrito Martinez Group at Aspen’s JAS Cafe

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Pedro Pedrito Martínez

ASPEN – One way of looking at it is that Pedrito Martinez had everything he needed, musically, sitting right outside his front door. In the Havana neighborhood where Martinez grew up, directly across the street from his house was a theater that specialized in traditional Cuban music. “It was very easy, very natural, to find people to teach me,” said Martinez, who began playing music at the age of 11. “They let you watch the rehearsals.”On his new album, “Rumba de la Isla,” released last week, Martinez mixes the old-school sounds of Afro-Cuban music with Spanish flamenco. The album is a tribute to the prominent flamenco singer Camarn de la Isla. But while taking on songs associated with Camarn, Martinez keeps the music firmly rooted in what he heard from across the way when he was a kid. Martinez doesn’t reveal much need to stray outside those deep, lively Cuban rhythms.”I don’t consider myself someone who’s added much to Cuban music,” he said. “Because Cuban music already has a lot. I’m just trying to continue the music, keep it alive.”Another way of seeing it, though, is that Martinez needed to get out of Havana and hear the big world of music that was out there. As a Cuban, Martinez faced real difficulties traveling to the United States. After becoming a talented enough percussionist and singer to join the folklorico ensemble of the Cuban bandleader Juan Bencomo, Martinez was able to perform outside of Cuba – in Costa Rica, Paris, Spain. But not until he came to New York City, in July 1998, at the age of 25, did Martinez realize all he had been missing, and all that he had yet to absorb.”I checked out a couple of bands, loved the vibe of the city, how cosmopolitan it was, how many different kinds of music were going on,” the 39-year-old Martinez said from his home in Union City, N.J., just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. “The difference here is, you see a great jazz band on one corner, a hip-hop group on the next. In Havana, you just hear Cuban music, all Cuban music. Being in New York was a giant step for me. I came with 70 percent of the knowledge I have, but the other 30 percent I got here, hearing Brazilian, jazz, everything else.”Martinez began building that first part of his musical foundation on the shoulders of his uncle, a professional percussionist, and his mother, a talented amateur singer. Whenever he would hear rehearsals in the theater across the street, Martinez would go over and listen. At 11, he got a set of the hand percussions known as the clave; the instrument, a simple pair of wooden sticks, is so significant in Cuban music that the fundamental Afro-Cuban rhythm goes by the same name. Martinez began practicing with friends, and by the time he was 14, he had dropped most of his interest in his other passions, boxing and judo, to focus on music. A friend who played with Juan Bencomo brought Martinez into the group, where he got schooled in the Afro-Cuban folklorico tradition, which had been brought to the Caribbean by enslaved West Africans. In Bencomo’s group, Martinez also learned to sing. “That was part of the job. You got into a folklorico group, you had to sing, dance and play,” he said.Martinez’s ear was able to pick up other sounds. Though it was illegal, Martinez listened to the broadcasts of American radio stations. He remembers hearing soul (Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie) and rock (Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, the Rolling Stones). Still, Martinez never contemplated coming to the U.S. until he met Jane Bunnett, a Canadian saxophonist. Bunnett saw Martinez play at Jazz Plaza, Havana’s big music festival, and hired him to play with her in Canada. The tour also included a small tour of the States, and once Martinez got to New York, he stayed.”I had been other places. But New York was different than all those in every way,” he said. “New York is New York, man.”Two years after arriving in New York, Martinez won the Afro-Latin hand drum segment at the Thelonious Monk Institute Competition and he was embraced by New York’s jazz community. He made a handful of albums with Brian Lynch, a Milwaukee-born trumpeter who specialized in Latin sounds; one of those recordings, “Simpatico,” earned a Grammy Award in 2007. Martinez played with his fellow Cuban, saxophonist Paquito d’Rivera, who introduced Martinez to Argentinean jazz. He spent seven years in Yerba Buena, a New York-based group founded by Venezuelan guitarist Andres Levin and comprising members from the U.S., Colombia and Cuba.Five years ago, a Cuban restaurant, Guantanamera, named for Cuba’s best-known song, opened just off Central Park South. “They called and said, ‘We need a band for the club, right away. So I called the cats,” Martinez said. Since then, the Pedrito Martinez Group – a quartet of percussionist Jhair Sala from Peru, bassist Alvaro Benavides from Venezuela and keyboardist and singer Araicne Trujillo from Havana – have created something of a sensation with their three-nights-a-week gigs. A recent profile in The New Yorker gushed, “If anyone can move Afro-Cuban music into greater visibility, it’s Martinez.”Martinez made several appearances in Aspen as part of Yerba Buena. But his own group makes its Aspen debut Friday and Saturday in Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ JAS Cafe Downstairs@the Nell series, with two shows each night.”We’ve been together so many years, five years with the same musicians, which is a long time,” Martinez said. “We sound tight. Having a place where you play three nights a week makes any band sound good. And the location – it’s a part of the city where everybody passes by.”Given the effect that moving to New York has been on his musicianship, it is interesting that Martinez says that part of the reason Cuban music is so rich is because it has been sealed off for so long. “All the African influences, all those rhythms brought by the slave trade, Cuba preserved all that legacy from Africa,” he said. “And because of the political problems, there’s nothing to do in Cuba. All over Cuba, you hear folklorico, popular music. That’s everything they do from when they wake up is play music. It adds happiness to their lives, which they need. Because life in Cuba can be very miserable.”Martinez doesn’t miss Cuba, not even the music. “Because I find here everything I used to do in Cuba and a lot more,” he said. “You find everything here. So many bands, so many different kinds of influences. I saw this band, Outkast, I loved them when they came out.”Which is not meant to show any disrespect for the music of his native country. In fact, Martinez believes Cuban music is nearly perfect as it is.”I’m the continuation of many artists, like Mongo Santamaria, Patato Valdes, who came here in the ’60s,” he said. “I’m not doing something new. I’m just picking up what they left for me. All I’m adding is the New York flavor.”


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