Did the current craze for all things Cuban drive Pedrito Martinez’s Habana Dreams to its No. 1 debut on Billboard’s Tropical Albums chart this week? With Cubans Gente de Zona at No. 2, it’s clear that Cuban music is hot.
But for Martinez, the top chart position is a case of credit due. Habana Dreams, the new album by the Pedrito Martinez Group, showcases the percussionist and band leader’s personal fusion of the ancestral rhythms of his Afro-Cuban faith, the timba dance music that he came of age with in Cuba, and the elements of jazz and pop he’s made his own over 18 years in the New York City area.
Over those years, Martinez has attracted the attention of artists ranging from Wynton Marsalis, who’s called him a genius, to Eddie Palmieri and Bruce Springsteen, and he’s performed as a guest on dozens of albums. His band’s weekly gigs at a small Cuban restaurant in Manhattan became an open secret for celebrities and devoted fans. The band has since left for far bigger rooms.
The Pedrito Martinez Group’s previous, self-titled recording was nominated for a Grammy for best Latin jazz album in 2015. More recently, Martinez was given the Jazz Journalists Association Award for best percussionist, an honor he’s taken three years in a row.
When Martinez left Cuba, in 1998, it was a place where he “couldn’t realize all the dreams I had in my mind as a musician. Cuba was not the country where I could make them happen.” With Habana Dreams, his first album recorded in Havana, he’s come full-circle.
Why did you want to record this album in Cuba?
It was very important for me to connect with my own culture, the people that I used to hang out with when I used to live in Cuba. I never had the opportunity before to record in a very representative and very famous studio like [Havana’s] Egrem. All of the greatest artists have recorded there, like Van Van and Irakere, so it was a dream come true, and it was a honor for me to record there. While I was recording, a lot of great artists were passing by to check it out; it was a beautiful feeling. On top of that, I’ve got my three brothers there, they are musicians, and I was able to include them on the record. It was incomparable. There was a very deep, spiritual energy.
So Habana Dreams was, in a way, a homecoming. Why did you leave Cuba?
In 1998, the year I left Cuba, I was working with Tata Guines, the great percussion player and beautiful human being. I was playing at the Hotel Meliá Cohiba for $1 a month. One. Dollar. A month. We had to eat bread and butter hiding in the kitchen of the hotel, because if the manager of the hotel saw the group eating in front of the tourists, they would kick us out. It was a very crazy situation.
That was the main reason I left Cuba. I was frustrated. I was not making money, I was not eating well, the situation with the lights — the government used to turn off the lights for many hours, and when they would put them back on, they would take the water and cut that off for hours, after that they shut off the gas.
So the main reason was not political. … I had so many goals that I couldn’t realize. All the dreams I had in my mind as a musician, Cuba was not the country where I could make them happen. … I first went back ot Cuba in 2000. Every year, I’ve tried to go two or three times. I just came back from doing a video for “Dios Mio,” the track on the album with Descemer [Bueno].
Over the years, you’ve continued to play [the Cuban contemporary dance style] timba, the music that exploded in Cuba in the 1990s but never had the success that a lot of Cuban musicians envisioned it would abroad.
Timba in the early 1990s was very, very popular in Cuba. There were many, many timba groups in Cuba then. People in the United States who had been listening to salsa for many years, they stuck with that commercial rhythm. People didn’t digest timba properly, people didn’t accept it the way we all were expecting. I think it also had to do with the political situation.
I’ve been here for 18 years struggling to survive and trying to put my music on the map. I’ve been fighting for people to really recognize that timba music from Cuba is a beautiful, deep kind of music. I think now Cuban music is in a good position on both sides: the political side and the musical side. Because a lot more Cuban people are coming to the United States, and I think people are more flexible and more understanding now about our music and about the spirituality that we put into our music.
How would you describe the music on Habana Dreams?
This record is not just timba. I was exploring a lot of things. A pop sound, a little bit more of a jazz side, and also exploring a little bit more into my own roots, which is rumba Afro-Cubana, so i was trying to make a record that is more cosmopolitan, trying to open it up a little bit more to a a bigger audience.
You’re known as a self-taught musician. You didn’t go to any of Cuba’s renowned music schools. Why not?
No. I learned on the street. You need someone to recommend you when you go to the music schools. When I lived in Cuba, I didn’t have any connections like that.
How were you introduced to ceremonial music?
In the neighborhood where I grew up, there was lot of music. A lot of folklore music and a lot of traditional music. I’m talking about great orchestras like Orquesta Aragon that used to rehearse in a theater in front of my house. So I used to go across the street and check them out. But besides that, there was a big Afro-Cuban community in my neighborhood.
A neighbor who was very into the religion brought me to the theater, where I learned for the first time how to start playing chakeres, cowbells, bata … I learned and I saw and played with a lot of folklore groups.
What do you say to people who want to know about santería?
Religion in Cuba is a way to survive — for communities, for people who grew up in very poor neighborhoods. That is what happened to me. I grew up in a neighborhood where we had a lot of love, but we didn’t have clothes to wear or a lot of food: [Cayo Hueso], a very poor neighborhood in the middle of Havana. So religion was a way to open a door to a music that is very mystical and mysterious and beautiful. But the only way to learn it is to become a santero. And there is no way they are going to teach you or show you all of the rhythms if you are not into religion. There are a lot of rhythms that you have to learn, and it’s amazing. And I’m very, very happy that I had the honor to learn that way.
The way I write music is not in the usual way. The Afro-Cuban music and the melodies that I incorporate, the chants and all that, and the way I write the bass lines, is totally different; they are kind of complicated for people who don’t understand our world. It’s very deep, it’s very soulful.
What was it like when you first arrived in the States?
I’ve always lived in New Jersey. … I was playing ceremonies for years. I met my wife in Jersey in a place called La Esquina Habanera, where there was rumba every Sunday. I played batá [drums] at santería ceremonies. … It’s very hard for people to accept who you are, to recognize that you come from a culture that is different. When i got here, I didn’t speak any English. I was a Cuban guy who didn’t go to music school; I was black. There were a lot of things that didn’t help in the beginning.
You have to be patient and you have to be brave, to continue trying to spread the word and show people that you are a great musician and that what you are doing is authentic. So it was hard.
What opened the doors for me was the Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition. I entered [in 2001] and I won [the Afro-Latin Hand Drumming award].
You are carrying on both sacred and popular traditions with your music. Are young musicians following those traditions? Are you concerned at all about Cuban music losing its essence?
Oh yeah. In Cuba the music has definitely changed. It’s all about reggaeton now. You see a hundred reggaeton groups now in Havana. I don’t have anything against reggaeton, especially Cuban reggaeton. But it’s not our music, it’s not the music we grew up with. It’s not part of our culture. And it’s very sad that the new generation is listening to reggaeton and they don’t know about traditional Cuban music. A lot of Cubans, including me, who don’t live in Cuba anymore, are very concerned about the relationship between the United States and Cuba now.
Because you know the culture [in Cuba] is so authentic and deep. We don’t want to see McDonald’s everywhere, Wendy’s everywhere in Havana. As soon as stuff like that starts going on, we’re going to lose a lot of our culture, a lot of our music, a lot of the beauty of Havana.
Everyone knows the word “rumba,” but maybe not what it means. How do you define it?
First of all, rumba came from rural areas in the ports of Havana and Matanzas. The people who used to work in the ports used to start playing rumba when they took a break. So rumba is from Cuba. It didn’t come from Africa, it’s from Cuba. Rumba means party, happiness, fiesta. Its like having a great time and trying to be yourself. This is the way I feel free. Rumba is freedom. In rumba, you can incorporate lyrics about sadness, about happiness, about political things, about women. You can talk about anything in the songs.
So rumba means all that: happiness, freedom, love.
What’s next for you now?
We’re going to the Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy. We’re going to do Colombia this year, Morocco. We’ll be back and forth constantly, spreading the word and playing the new music. And hopefully we’re going to get the Grammy with this record.