By Gabriela Sierra Alonso @cortaditoxgaby
“Habana Dreams” is the title track of Pedrito Martínez Group’s forthcoming album and you can listen to it right here, exclusively on Uforia, today. The song, which just became available on iTunes, features acclaimed Cuban salsero Issac Delgado. This is just a taste of Martínez’s star-studded album - dropping June 10 - which also features Ruben Blades, Wynton Marsalis, Telmary Díaz and others.
Eighteen years after leaving Cuba and settling in New York City, the percussionist and singer is at the top of his game. His fierce combination of deep Afro-Cuban folklore fused with the jazz, hip-hop and funk elements have molded him into a unique talent with international appeal.
“Today, Pedrito is one of the most complete Cuban percussionists out there. Anyone who loves Cuban music, loves Pedrito,” says Delgado. “So when he called me and told me he was going to record in Cuba and asked me to join him, I said of course. [...] Before the change, the world saw Cuba in sepia. Now, they’re going to see it in color.”
I had the chance to speak with Martínez and Delgado in San Francisco last Sunday before they went onstage at Yerba Buena Gardens to perform songs from the album Habana Dreams for the very first time.
This groundbreaking album is a sign of the times and captures the group’s homecoming to the island. Ten years ago, Martínez founded his explosive quartet; Alvaro Benavides on Bass, Jhair Sala on percussion, and their newest member, Edgar Aleman-Pantoja, who recently replaced Ariacne Trujillo, on the keys. Martínez is the lead vocalist, percussionist and most radiant front man. Their tight sound comes from countless performances through their musical residences in New York City, first Guantanamera restaurant and now at Blue Note jazz club Subrosa.
Born Pedro Pablo Martínez in Cayo Hueso, an area in Central Havana, Martinez, 42, began to sing and dance alongside some of Cuba’s most respected rumberos, including Tata Guines and Yoruba Andabo when he was 11 years old. At 25, Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnett invited him to tour with her group, Spirit of Havana, which led him to New York City, where he chose to stay indefinitely.
For Habana Dreams, Martínez went back to his Cayo Hueso neighborhood to record. The group was slated to play Musicabana festival on Thursday but the performance was canceled. This weekend, the Pedrito Martinez Group plays a home show in New York. Here’s part of my conversation with Martínez, translated from Spanish.
Uforia: What was driving the concept behind your new album?
Pedrito Martínez: The improving relationship between the U.S. and Cuba is something that has forged change for all Cubans. They gave me the opportunity to record at Egrem, one of the most recognized and emblematic studios in Cuba. So, we made the album there, with beautiful energy and a ton of special guests like Issac Delgado, Telmary Diaz, Descemer Bueno, Angelique Kidjo, Wynton Marsalis and Ruben Blades. We worked with a countless number of amazing artists and I think that they took the album to the next level. It truly grasps the energy of the neighborhood and the streets that I come from.
Uforia: You were able to record with members of your own family in Cuba. Which tracks can we hear them on and how did that feel?
PM: Yes, my brothers play on the track called “Recuerdos.” I have three brothers who are also musicians that play with rapper Telmary Díaz, who also makes an appearance on the record which was a dream come true for me. I basically taught all of my brothers how to play, so it was emotional to record with them.
Uforia: When I listen to your music, I feel like your compositions are groundbreaking in the realm of traditional Cuban music. What’s your formula?
PM: I have always been focused on innovating and evolving while trying to maintain my individual sound--which is particular and unique but heavily rooted in folklore. Because I live in New York, I’ve been able to incorporate flare--funk, hip-hop, and jazz--into timba [Cuban salsa] music. When it comes together, it allows the album to sound more alternative and cosmopolitan. But the backbone of my style is always Afro-Cuban music. We make timba with no horns or timbales and it’s still profound.
Uforia: Do you have an audience in Cuba? Do you plan to do a few shows there?
PM: A lot of people there know me, Pedrito, but are unfamiliar with the Pedrito Martinez Group. Now that things are changing there, I hope that the youth can get acquainted with my music, start to listen to it and take a liking to it. We were going to do a show there this week, actually but it didn’t work it. I’m faithful that we’ll have our moment there.
Uforia: I think this new album is writing a new chapter about how people should go about taking advantage of the new diplomatic relations in the music world. How do you think this new relationship is going to affect the musical landscape on the island?
PM: Well, I already think that the music scene in Cuba has changed a lot in recent years, now that many musicians are powered by the reggaeton genre. It’s really commercial and urban and I don’t have a problem with that. If people have to survive in a marginal place, and rebel through their singing and lyricism i’m ok with that. But I don’t think it wouldn’t be good, or healthy to avoid the true roots of our music--the folkloric and traditional Cuban music genres. I think that the government should keep recognizing that that’s our country’s true music, not reggaeton. I hope that Cuban music can be re-gain the same strength and power that it had when I was living there.
Uforia: How did you feel when you heard that things were going to change between the U.S. and Cuba?
PM: I felt really happy for my family. I think that the Cuban people are really happy--you can see the happiness and the change in them and I think eventually it’s going to get a lot better. Really, the change is what we all wanted. When I saw them make the announcement on TV, I said wow, how wonderful and started to plan my album. If this change didn’t happen, I would have had to look towards different horizons for my next project.