In 2013, Afropop Worldwide staff writer Morgan Greenstreet visited with Cuban master percussionist/singer Pedrito Martinez in his home in breezy Union City, NJ, just across the Lincoln Tunnel from Manhattan. Pedrito was a welcoming host, introducing our writer to his mother and father, who live with him. The interview took place just before the Pedrito Martinez Group’s debut album release show and party at City Winery, Oct. 8, 2013.
Morgan Greenstreet: Thanks so much for talking with Afropop Worldwide, Pedrito. How did you get started with music?
Pedrito Martinez: I got started with music when I was 11 years old. I started down there in Havana, Cuba, in a neighborhood called Cayo Hueso, where I grew up. In the area where I used to live, there was a lot of music involved, a lot of orchestras, old school orchestras who rehearsed right in front of my house, in a very old theater.
Well now, the name of that theater was Strand, and they changed the name and they named it Palacio de la Rumba, right in front of my house, you know. Before they made the Palacio de la Rumba, they used to have many, many charanga groups rehearsing there. On top of that, two blocks from my house, one of the greatest batá players used to live there. His name was Jesús Pérez, a very, very notorious batalero.
Totally. I know his name.
So, you know, I grew up in that area. There were many rumberos, many musicians. On top of that, they used to have this event in the park where I grew up, Parque Trillo. They used to have all the best bands in Cuba making a tour of the neighborhoods [of Havana]; they’d call it like that, la gira por los barrios. So they used to have the best bands in Cuba [come play in the park].
What were the popular bands then, when you were growing up?
Man, there were many! La Charanga Habanera; Los Van Van; still Irakere; Manolito Simonet; Bamboleo…I don’t want to forget any…There were so many…
Of course! NG La Banda was one of my favorites! NG, thanks for reminding me! Yeah, it was cool!
Were there musicians in your family as well?
My mom is a singer and my mama’s brother, he passed away a long time ago, he was one of the greatest congueros from Cuba. His name was Antonio Campos, and they used to call him Watusi. He looked like Nat King Cole a lot, so people used to call him Nat King Cole, too.
So, what were some of the groups you played in, in Cuba?
I used to play just in the folklore groups: I used to play with Yoruba Andabo for three years. I traveled with Yoruba Andabo out of Cuba. I played with Oba Ilu, which was a group with Goyo and El Gato, great rumberos. I played in many groups, man. I used to play a lot with Clave y Guaguanco, they always used to invite me to play. Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, when they were in the area, they used to invite me to sing with them, you know. It was cool.
Nice. So you came here [to the United States] in ‘98?
How did it happen, did you come with a group and decide to stay?
Yes. This saxophone player from Canada, from Toronto, Jane Bunnett, she went to Havana and I was playing in Jazz Plaza in Vedado. And she saw me playing with another group, and she said, “I would like to invite you to do a tour in Canada, then go to the United States.” So she put a group together with the great Hilario Durán on piano; Amado Dedeo, the bandleader from Clave y Guaguanco; Pancho Quinto…
That’s an amazing group.
Yeah, she put together a lot of rumberos. And this great piano player, also his daughter, Hilario Durán’s daughter. And then she brought the group to Canada. And we did a beautiful tour in Canada. And then we did two concerts at the Knitting Factory.
And then when I finished the concerts with her, I stayed here.
What was your motivation?
Well actually, you know, everything was rolling along so beautifully. I saw so many groups, great groups; I saw the vibe of New York, and I loved it man! It was beautiful! Amazing! Amazing for musicians. New York is the city for musicians.
Why, do you think?
There’s not a city like New York, man. The music scene is unique, because you can find, in a little club right there, the best Brazilian group, the best jazz group on the other corner, the best Latin jazz group, the best timba, the best salsa group, it’s all in New York. It’s very, very unique and mysterious.
Yeah, totally. Yeah, it’s partly the hustle of living here, too, it keeps everyone humble, sort of.
Yes, you’re totally right.
So, when you got here, what projects were you involved in?
The first projects I did when I came here, was two different projects: one with Bryan Lynch, a very great trumpet player, he won a Grammy a few years ago, with a record called Simpático. It was a collaboration between him and Eddie Palmieri, and I did all the percussion on that record. So as soon as I got here, I started playing with Bryan Lynch. The first record I did was for Monday Michiru, a great singer from Japan. And simultaneously with that I was playing with Juan Carlos Formell, son of the notorious Juan Formell, bandleader of Los Van Van. I worked with those three bands, and at the same time, I was doing ceremonies, playing batá, in private ceremonies, with the great Orlando Rios "Puntilla," who just passed away, too.
It was great, you know, so many things were going on, so fast.
So these were people you knew already from previous…?
No, I didn’t know anybody here, no English, nothing. The only person I knew was Puntilla, he came in 1980, but he used to go to Cuba a lot, and he used to play private ceremonies in Cuba with me, and with my godfather Roman [Diaz]. So that’s how I met him, when I used to live in Cuba. So when I came here, he invited me to play in one of those ceremonies, and he said, “You know what, you can stay in my house. If you don’t want to go back to Cuba, you can stay in my house.” That’s what I did.
He was a great friend.
Was Roman here at the time?
No, I brought Roman from Cuba!
You brought Roman, awesome.
One year after [I came].
So Roman is your godfather, padrino?
He’s my padrino in two different religions that I’ve been practicing in Cuba. Abakua, and Santeria…Abakua is the secret one.
I know a bit about it…I began to study batá in Cuba, but I didn’t really continue with it, because I didn’t continue with the religion. What are your views on playing batá in a nonreligious context? Since the Cuban revolution, people have been playing batá just as music, on recordings and things like that. And you do it as well, on a lot of your recordings and concerts. But I also know that for you it’s also a part of your religion.
Yes, it’s a part of my religion, it’s a part of my life, actually. That’s my main instrument, actually. The conga, timbal, the other instruments I play are secondary. My very first instrument was the batá— is the batá. And, as you said before, actually for you to be able to get deeper and get more knowledge about the religion or the instrument, you need to be inside the religion. Because there’s some limitation when you’re not inside the religion. There’s some steps that they don’t teach you if you’re not inside.
And that’s the thing I felt there, too. I went to many ceremonies and experienced beautiful things…
And my feeling was that the batá drums are for the orishas, and if I’m not drumming for the orishas, why would I?
Well, you know, there’s two powers. There’s the ceremony power, then there’s the artist power, where you can use the batá in a context. Like to play Latin jazz or salsa, or whatever. Like Irakere did. So many bands in Cuba used to incorporate the batá in their arrangement. But you cannot use the religious batá, the ones that are sacred.
Tambores de fundamento…
Right, the fundamento ones, you cannot use it. They are for playing ceremonies, you just can use it for playing ceremonies.
And so, for you, when you play batá in your band, does it feel different for you [than when you play in a ceremony]?
Well, actually, the chants are the same, the patterns are the same, but the spirituality is different. You know, when you’re playing in ceremonies, you see everybody answering you in chants, in the Yoruba chants, people are getting…how do you say in English?
Or mounted by the spirit, yeah.
And that doesn’t happen when you play in Guantanamera. [Laughs].
Right. [Laughs] Hopefully.
Hopefully, exactly. Maybe, maybe someone get touched, but you don’t…
That’s not the purpose of it.
No, it’s more about the music, not about the religion.
All right. What about Yerba Buena? How did that group come about?
Man, that was a group that put me in a beautiful level as a musician. I learned a lot from that band. The bandleader was this guy from Venezuela, Andres Levin; very well-known producer. And I learned a lot with that group; I got beautiful experience. I did many concerts; we toured a lot. They used to call it alternative music; they mixed so many things, that group. It was a great period of time in my musical career.
In that group, were you composing?
I was collaborating with compositions; I was doing everything in there, it was great.
And what became of the group? Everybody went their own way, or what happened?
What happened with the group was the bandleader had an offer to write some music for movies, for Hollywood and the money was very good. So he decided, little by little, to start doing more of that. Then by some point, he said, “You know what, [the band] is taking too much time from me, I have to do that.”
When did you start leading bands? Did you start as soon as you got here, or after a while?
No, no, no. I was a sideman for many years. From 1998 through 2007, I was playing with everybody. And then, by 2007, Guantanamera [nightclub] opened the restaurant…Actually a little bit before maybe. That restaurant had been there already for seven years. But, you know, I was not there often like I am now, because I was playing with Yerba Buena a lot, and with Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez’s band. But by 2007, 2008, I decided to do my group. I said, “You know what, I’m going to work more on my own thing, my own music.” And that’s what I did.
O.K. How did you conceptualize it at first? Because I saw you, maybe it was 2010, in Massachusetts, at Mass MOCA, and you had a much bigger band.
Oh yeah. Well actually, Mass MOCA was the very first gig we did.
Ah, nice. Well, you sounded good!
That was the very first gig I decided to put out with the band. It was a big one. But I was not sure what format I wanted. A smaller one, a bigger one. And right after that gig, I decided I don’t want a big group.
Because I want people to appreciate more what’s going on in terms of rhythm, in terms of vocals. When you add so many elements, I think it sounds bigger, but there’s too much going on. I want people to see a band that at the same time that they can listen to the music, being able also to experience a powerful quartet, showing people that you don’t need 10 people to sound big. And I was comparing…I’m a very curious person, and I always listen to different kinds of music, comparing things: sounds and colors. And I said, you know what, this is not what I want. This is what everybody has been doing. People think that timba music is 12 people on the stage… three horns. I said, I want to do timba music with four people, without horns. And that’s what I did, man.
People say that we sound bigger, as a big band, and deep, you know. It’s all about the spirituality and being real, man, you know. We’re not playing around. When I go out there to play, it doesn’t matter if we’re playing for a thousand people or just a couple people in the restaurant; we’re gonna have fun, we’re gonna have a great time, and make sure people get loud and excited and love it, you know. And that’s what I’ve been doing man. I’m not worried about details. I just, I’m always trying to be myself, you know. The same intention, the same love that I have for the ceremonies, I put it in the other side of my life, that is the popular music. There is no difference. The only difference is that for here I’m singing for the orishas, and here I’m singing in Spanish, a different kind of music. But the feeling for me is the same.
Cool. And how did you meet, or settle on the other three musicians in your current band?
Well, the other percussion player I have, Jhair [Sala], the big guy, he’s kind of my family, you know. My wife is a great friend of his family. He’s from Peru, and my wife is from Peru; I’ve been married with her for 15 years. And, when he was nine years old, my wife’s cousin bring him to my house…
…for me to teach him. Since that till now, he’s been with me. So he knows. He doesn’t even have to look at me, he knows where I’m going to go.
Yeah, you guys have the same thing going on [laughs].
So, Alvaro [Benavides], he used to be a sub. I used to have another bass player, his name was Panagiotis Andreou. He used to play in Yerba Buena. Greek guy. So Panagiotis was kinda crazy at that time, not showing at the gig. So I fired Panagiotis and then I got Alvaro. And that’s it. Alvaro’s always been on time, he’s great. And Ariacne [Trujillo], she was the very first piano player I had when I start this group, but she was more crazy than Panagiotis. Never on time. Crazy! She was a disaster. So I fired her like twice! But the third time, I said, you know, “You wanna be here, or not?” And that’s it.
So how long has she been here [in the U.S.]?
She’s been here, I think 10 years already.
Oh, O.K., because I didn’t know about her until your band…
Yeah, she wasn’t doing many things. You know, Paquito D’Rivera brought her from Cuba. Her background is as a classical musician, a classical piano player.
Which is cool, because that comes out sometimes.
Like on the first track of the new CD, “Conciencia,” some of those montuno breakdowns.
Oh yeah, she’s bad! She’s bad!
[Laughs] They sound like straight-up classical excerpts.
It’s a beautiful mix.
And the fact that everybody sings in the band, it’s really strong.
Yeah, it’s cool.
So, with this group, you’ve been touring…
How’s that going?
Amazing. It’s a journey, man. It’s another experience when, in Australia, in England, Denmark, you see thousands and thousands of people going crazy! Just jumping and getting so excited with the group, you know. It makes me feel like I don’t want this group for two years; I want this group forever. I want to keep doing great with this group, to keep making music for many years. And I want people to remember this band as…I’m not pretending as the Beatles, but I want this group to be in the history of music, you know.
Uh, huh. So where have you toured so far?
Everywhere! Without the record, we did the greatest festivals in the whole entire world. It was an unusual thing. Without a record we did the best fests.
Just on reputation?
Oh man, yeah. Umbria, Montreux…I don’t know. I’d have to get the list…
It blurs together.
Awesome. So, the last record you did, Rumba de la Isla, had many flamenco elements…
Yes. That was a project that this great guy and producer, a great friend of mine, Fernando Trueba, who’d been producing many records already. The name of his record company is Calle 54. They did a beautiful documentary, which I’m in.
And since that, since they did, they promised me, “Oh Pedro, we need to do a record for you.” And then I was very big fan, since I used to live in Cuba, of this very famous flamenco singer, Camarón. So, you know, they proposed to me to pick 10 songs from him, and do an arrangement and it put it on the record. And that’s what I did.
It was beautiful, man. ‘Cause, you know, the great Roman Diaz, my padrino, is on the record. John Benitez; Alfredo De La Fe; Niño Gonzalez, great guitar player, flamenco player; Piraña, great cajon player; Xiomara Lugart singing all the background vocals with me. It was a good thing.
And before that was your first solo record, Slave to Africa.
That was the very first record I did by my own name, which Andres Levin, the bandleader from Yerba Buena, and I produced. I did that in 2006, and it came out by a record company from Japan called Intoxicate, in 2007. Just in Japan.
My favorite track on that is “Dime Que Te Pasa.” This was the first time I heard your music. I loved it. It has Afrobeat mixed in…
Yeah, that was a whole period of time that I was very into Afrobeat, and the African feeling. I did all, everything, all the bass lines, all the drums [on that album]. I invented all the patterns with the Afrobeat influence, and some batá ideas. It was beautiful, man. I want that sound, very underground, very rough. It was not recorded in a studio with very fancy microphones: I recorded it in my own studio.
Oh yeah? At home?
Yeah. Three microphones, and I said, you know, I want that sound, like we are in Africa, in a studio in Africa…no high definition, no beautiful room…No, no. I want that sound, that’s the sound of the record. It’s real.
Totally. Let’s talk about the new record, Pedrito Martinez Group. So where did you record this one?
We did that in Legacy, a beautiful studio right on 48th street between 7th and 6th. And Steve Gadd was the producer.
Awesome. How did you connect with him?
Well, Steve Gadd, he’d been in Guantanamera many times. He was a person that loved the group since he saw us the first time. And he said, “You know what, I would like to learn your repertory; I want to play with you guys.” And he did that, he learned the repertory perfectly. And then we did many gigs with him. He became a good friend. And we decided to use him as producer. Beautiful, man. For me, he’s one of the cats on drums.
Totally. So you have some other guests on the album, including Wynton Marsalis. How did that happen?
Well man, Wynton, it’s a person that I’ve been involved in many projects with. I did a project with Paul Simon and him. I’ve been doing many projects with him at Lincoln Center. So, you know, he loves the group. We did a tour with my group and his big band, at the Barbican Center in England. And then, when we come back and decided to put together the record, we said, “Wynton, you want be part of this, man?” He said, “Definitely, man.” He came to the studio and did like two, three trumpet solos. I said, “Stop, man. If you do seven, I’ll want to use the seven solos.” They were off the hook.
Don’t give me too many options.
Yeah, it was a beautiful experience and energy. So John Scofield, which is another guest on the record, he met the group also in Guantanmera. Guantanamera has been the place where…We’ve been blessed to have that place ‘cause it’s very central. It’s in an area where everybody passes by, a good area. It’s a cool restaurant and it gave us the opportunity to put together our own music, and gave us the opportunity for people to come see us. And Scofield came one time to the club, and he just fell in love with the group. And he has this festival that he puts together in Katonah, where he lives, Katonah Fest. And he invited us to play in Katonah, and he played with us. And I said, you know what, if I’m going to invite a guitar player to the record it’s going to be Scofield. He killed it.
Yeah, totally. So how did you choose the non-Cuban covers for album. Like "Travelling Riverside Blues," and the Michael Jackson, “I’ll Be There.” I mean, “Que Palo,” I understand, it’s obvious that you would do that, you’ve been playing it, and you do it in your own way.
It’s funny, they didn’t put “Que Palo” on the on the record. They wanted to use it at the beginning, and then they just decide to put it as a bonus. Yeah. It’s all good.
Well, actually, Ariacne, she used…We all loved Michael Jackson since we were teenagers, in Cuba. She brought that song to the group, and she also brought the arrangement. And we just loved it, the way she put it together. And then we start playing and playing it, and it became part of us. And “Travelling Riverside Blues” was an idea of a project called Tribute to Robert Johnson, where Steve Jordan, a great drummer, was the producer of that event that they did at this theater in Harlem, Apollo Theater. They invited Taj Mahal, a lot of great blues guitar players and Living Color group was in there, too. So they invited us, too. The only Latin group they invite. And they said, “But you guys need to pick one song from Robert Johnson.” And then we heard the version that Led Zeppelin did. And Ariacne brought the arrangement.
Nice. So in the group, you all arrange, or she arranges?
No, no, we all put ideas. Sometimes she comes with an idea by herself, sometimes I bring an idea by myself. But we all…
Nice. Excellent. So what are the plans moving forward, now that the records coming out? You have a big show obviously, Tuesday at City Winery, the album release show.
Yeah, well, we have a tour to Europe. We’re gonna go to Paris, England, Germany, in November to promote the record. We got a big tour on the West Coast in December. We got so many things going on. Everything’s moving very fast, which is a good thing. We’re very happy: In our contract with Motema Records, we have another record that we’re going to do with them.
And they’re helping arrange the touring, too?
Yes, yes, they’ve been great.
Excellent. Do you and PMG intend to travel to Cuba to perform?
We would like to do that. It would be an honor for me to do that.
Awesome. Thanks for doing the interview.
Yeah, it’s great, man.