Cuban heartbeats

Drum roll: Percussionist Pedrito Martinez and his band are coming to town.

Pedrito Martinez group (photo credit: Courtesy)
Pedrito Martinez group
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If you fancy strutting your stuff or possibly even swinging your hips, then Pedrito Martinez’s upcoming gigs at the Zappa clubs in Jerusalem, Herzliya and Tel Aviv should suit you to a T. The 40-year-old Cuban, New York resident percussionist is coming here with his trio, the Pedrito Martinez group, which includes Venezuelan-born guitarist Alvaro Benavides, Peruvian-born percussionist Jhair Sala and Cuban vocalist Ariacne Trujillo.
Despite his relative youth, Martinez has been performing for more than 30 years. The percussionist says that his choice of career was a foregone conclusion from a very young age.
“My uncle was a great conguero (conga player), and when I was very little I used to listen to him play in my house. And there was a lot of music all around me in our area in Havana. I had two other uncles who were also musicians,” he says.
Mind you, there was another pursuit that vied for the young Martinez’s interest.
“I did boxing and judo as a kid, but when I was 11, I started playing music seriously,” he adds.
The latter took place when Martinez did his first professional gig.
“Of course, I was playing with people who were much older than me, and I had to prove to them I could do a good job,” he recalls. “I did that, and they respected me. I learned a lot from them and, of course, the audience turned their attention to this young kid on the stage. It was very exciting for me.”
Martinez made good progress with his musical career, performing rumba and other Afro-Cuban styles all over Cuba and gaining invaluable experience. His life and career changed dramatically when he was 25 and was invited by Canadian saxophonist and flutist Jane Burnett to perform with her. The Cuban’s visit to North America was extended and eventually became a permanent one.
That provided the young percussionist with access to a whole new world of music and, eventually, to the melting pot musical scene in New York.
Martinez set his stall out in no uncertain manner when he took part in the inaugural Latin percussion category of the prestigious Thelonious Monk Competition. He won the contest and signaled his arrival in the epicenter the global jazz arena.
“Winning the competition changed my life and opened up so many doors for me,” says Martinez. “People heard about me not only in the United States but also around the world.”
The percussionist is also mindful of the debt of gratitude he and many of his compatriot professionals owe to the Buena Vista Social Club gang of veteran Cuban artists who were brought to the Western world’s attention by American guitarist Ry Cooder in the late 1990s.
“They were amazing musicians,” he says of the likes of guitarist-vocalist Compay Segundo, who was well into his 90 when Cooder helped to propel him into the international limelight.
Segundo and his cohorts, like septuagenarian singer Ibrahim Ferrer and octogenarian pianist Ruben Gonzalez, had faded way past global consciousness following the Communist revolution in Cuba and the beginning of the Castro regime.
But when Cooder came along, the pent-up musicianship and energies just exploded into the global scene, and the world was reminded of the sonic treasures that Cuba has to offer.
“That opened a lot of doors for the new generation of Cuban musicians,” notes Martinez.
“Without them, I don’t know where I would be today.”
While Martinez hails from Cuba and is steeped in all kinds of subgenres played on the island, he feeds off a much wider musical milieu. That is evidenced by the fact that the members of his band come from different parts of Latin America which, the percussionist feels, allows them to offer a richer range of entertainment to audiences around the world.
Martinez also has a personal vested interest in incorporating South American grooves in his work.
“We have a Venezuelan in the band, and I identify very strongly with Peruvian music and culture. I have been married to a Peruvian woman for the last 16 years,” he explains.
But, naturally, audiences don’t go to see Martinez et al because of the percussionist’s matrimonial bliss but because they know the group will do the business on stage.
“I think this is the best band I have had, and we do a good show,” he says. “I think having musicians from different cultures makes what we do richer and more interesting. Having the other guys in the band has really changed the sound of the Afro-Cuban music we play. It has pushed us onto a better level of musicianship.”
Although he is grounded in Cuban sounds and rhythms, Martinez pushes his musical boat into all kinds of artistic waters.
“There is a lot of jazz in what I do – I’ve been in New York for 16 years, and you hear jazz everywhere – and there’s funk and rock too,” he says. “It’s all good as far as I am concerned.”
Martinez, who performed at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat a couple of years ago, has also been garnering kudos from some of the international music community’s elite. When they are in New York, rock megastars such as Eric Clapton, Roger Waters and Stevie Winwood and jazz giants such as guitarist John Scofield and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis make it their business to attend Martinez’s gigs.
Martinez says that, more than anything, he is coming to Israel to give us a good time.
“Cuban music makes people happy and makes people want to dance and move. It makes you feel good,” he asserts.
The Pedrito Martinez group will perform on April 17 at the Zappa Club in Tel Aviv; on April 18 at the Zappa Club in Herzliya; and on April 19 at Zappa in Jerusalem. For tickets and more information:*9080; (03) 762-6666; and