Street-Trained Virtuoso Pedrito Martinez Returns to Havana to Record a Historic Album


By the time he got to Cuba last October, the word had spread: Pedrito Martinez was in town to make an album. Old and young rumberos thronged to the EGREM studios in Havana to welcome one of their own. Martinez, the New York–based percussionist and Grammy nominee, had known the instant the United States and Cuba agreed to restore diplomatic ties that his group’s second album would be made back home.

“A lot of Cubans living outside of Cuba, like me, we were waiting a long time for the issue to get fixed,” Martinez tells the Voice. Since moving to the U.S. in 1998, he’d returned to the island for visits, but never with the full band. “As soon as it happened, I said, ‘I’m going to record in Cuba.’ ”

Habana Dreams, out this week, is the product of intense studio time with Cuban guests on the tracks — singers Descemer Bueno and Issac Delgado, rapper Telmary Diaz — and a whole community in support. “Each day there were forty people in the studio giving you twenty thousand hugs,” says co-producer Willie Torres. “Pedrito was in heaven.”

The most poignant moment arose in the recording of “Recuerdos” (Memories), which features no fewer than six Afro-Cuban drummers: Martinez; his musical and spiritual mentor Roman Diaz; bandmate Jhair Sala; and even his brothers Adrian, Mario, and Antonio, all three working percussionists in Cuba. Martinez dedicates the thrilling, explosive track to the tamboreros and rumberos who’ve gone to heaven, the más allá. “It came out crazy beautiful,” he says. “So powerful, so much passion.”

This apotheosis has been a long time coming for Martinez, who grew up in a working-class Havana neighborhood surrounded by elder drummers steeped in rumba, charanga, and són — the core styles of twentieth-century Cuban popular music, exemplified by classic bands such as Orquesta Aragón and Los Van Van. A street-trained virtuoso with no formal music education, Martinez deepened his craft in New York City, picking up work with Latin and jazz acts and quickly getting noticed by the likes of Wynton Marsalis, whom he considers a close friend and mentor, and Sting. New York also gave him space to practice Santería, the Afro-Cuban traditional religion with roots in the Yoruba culture of West Africa, which was held in dim regard at the time by Cuba’s government.

Until recently, his musical pulpit was the Cuban restaurant Guantanamera, in midtown Manhattan, where Martinez played up to four nights a week, drawing a savvy late-night audience of big-name musicians and touring artists who’d stop in after their own gigs. The Pedrito Martinez Group’s self-titled 2013 debut capped his efforts and earned a Grammy nomination. It blended Cuban roots with other influences such as blues, rock, and a cover of the Motown classic “I’ll Be There.”

But as much as working in New York has enriched him musically, the chance to record back in Cuba was truly transformative, says Martinez. “It was a dream come true. The power and the beauty of the album came out because we did it [there]. It changed my life, my perspective, the way I write music, the way I feel.”

The new album isn’t all percussion burners; it’s a romantic and spiritual project, too. It opens with a love song, “Mi Tempestad,” in which Martinez tells his wife how much he loves her and asks her to forgive his mistakes. On “Encantamiento Yoruba,” a duet with Diaz, his mentor in Santería, the two men play percussion and sing invocations to the spirits called orishas.

Some prestigious guests added parts in New York. The sweet, midtempo “Antadilla” features the great Panamanian singer Rubén Blades, who wrote the song, and Marsalis (who also appears on “Mi Tempestad”) on trumpet. Angélique Kidjo, the irrepressible Afropop singer and activist from Benin, contributes vocals on “Tributo a Santiago de Cuba,” which Martinez wrote to celebrate Santiago, the second largest city in Cuba and Havana’s historical cultural rival.

The core of the album, though, bears the mark of EGREM, the studios of Cuba’s state label and a space infused with a powerful legacy. The main studio on the island, it’s where innumerable great Cuban bands have recorded, from Irakere to the Buena Vista Social Club. “That room has a lot of history,” Martinez says. “The energy level is unique.”

So was the setup. Just as Havana is known for its vintage cars, the studio features an array of old-school audio gear. “They had a festival of vintage microphones,” says Torres. “There were classic German microphones from the 1930s. The piano was at least a hundred years old. The engineers were amazing. Everything we asked, they’d find it or build it for you. I’ve worked in lots of studios, but nothing compares to this.”

As Cuba accelerates its economic and social crossover, the survival of these special facets of its artistic culture is on Martinez’s mind. On the one hand, he welcomes the change and sees its positive effects already. “People in Cuba have a different perspective now,” he says. “You can see the hope on their faces, the happiness. They expect that things are going to get better.”

On the other hand, he worries about the fate of classic Cuban genres. Already, he says, the airwaves are awash with reggaetón, an imported sound that has little to do with the island’s musical styles. As Cuba opens up to investment and global consumer culture, Martinez worries that the music will get lost in the tide of foreign pop trends. “I hope people will continue to develop, save, and keep alive our music and our culture,” he says.

That’s a long-term challenge beyond the power of any one musician to solve. But Martinez and his colleagues see signs of hope as well. According to Torres, traditional religion and its associated music are becoming popular again: “Santería music, Yoruba music is very much in style now.” Habana Dreams, with its strong Santería content and musical influences, will no doubt contribute to this revival.

“This album is very hip, but it’s also an awakening,” says Torres. “It’s letting people know where things are from and how they’re supposed to be done.”