“To be a rumbero, you don’t have to play an instrument, or dance, or sing, but you do have to love the rumba,” exclaims Pedrito Martinez, the highly talented Cuban percussionist and singer who first came to USA audiences’ attention as a member of the Afrolatin fusion group Yerba Buena. Earlier this year, I caught up with Martinez when his own group showcased at Globalfest, a seven-hour concert-extravaganza held annually to time with the APAP (Association of Performing Art’s Presenters) conference in New York City.
Blessed with silky-smooth voice and a wide, generous smile, Martinez speaks fondly of a childhood and youth immersed in Cuban folkloric music in the famed Havana neighborhood of Cayo Hueso, home to many a renowned musician. He also hails from a musical family – his mother is singer Regia Lina Campos, and her brother Antonio Campos (known as “Watusi”) played with a number of acclaimed Cuban ensembles. A love for American soul and rock was a part of his formative musical years too – Martinez lists as influences the LP’s that his uncles played constantly, including Kool and the Gang, Earth, Wind and Fire, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder and Pink Floyd.
Nevertheless, he says that from the moment he heard the traditional rhythms of the neighborhood’s renowned percussionist Jesus Perez, he knew they were his musical destiny. Perez’ own disciples were his teachers, and Martinez came to participate frequently in religious musical performances within the Afrocuban Yoruba religion, which came to Cuba via Nigerian peoples in the 1800’s. Having gone through initiation into the religion, he calls it one of his “main dishes” in terms how important it is to his soul and his music.
Based in New York since 1998, Martinez more recently formed a band with several other young Latinos, and the group has a permanent residency at the Guantanamera Restaurant in mid-town Manhattan. Although their music is rooted in Cuba, he clarifies that their sound is “more than just ‘cubano, cubano’. We add folkloric rhythms from Peru, Venezuela, Brazil and give each song a cosmopolitan, world-music touch. And of course, we add the little grain of American music.” The band’s rich musical vision was indeed confirmed at their Globalfest performance, where the musicians shared a heady, powerful and almost jazzy concoction that was made for both careful listening as well as dancing.
But what exactly then is the rumba? Martinez starts by defining it musically: “First, it’s distinguished by the clave rhythm – za, za- za, za, za! Secondly, it always starts with the diana, which came from flamenco through the Spaniards, a call of improvised phrases that relates to the melody that is about to begin.”
But it soon becomes clear that rumba is more than a musical structure when Martinez adds, smiling broadly: “It is also the best medicine there is to heal anything! You can yell, jump, play the drums… anybody can be a rumbero, just express yourself! It’s really about joy and happiness – that’s what we want to transmit as a band. These are difficult times, and we want to share with people that happiness really, really does exist.”
The Pedrito Martinez Group will perform December 3 at the Mayne Stage.