Percussionist Pedrito Martinez Makes His Own Beat To Present Day Success

Mar 7, 2014

Martinez (center) is the name behind the Pedrito Martinez Group. The group will perform March 13 at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.
Credit Petra Richterova

Musician Pedrito Martinez was born and raised in Cuba, but it wasn't until he left home 16 years ago was he able to cultivate what would become his musical foundation.

"When I'm in workshops I express myself and I tell the students that I came from Cuba with 50% of Afro-Cuban knowledge, but the other 50% of the music that I play, I learn in the United States, I learn New York City, playing with so many people and recording with so many people. So, I owe a lot of my knowledge to this city," says the 42 year old. 

As a kid, the budding percussionist received a lot of his music education through being around other musicians - and of course, American music. But, as Cuba had strict censorship laws in place at the time, it wasn't easy.

"I remember when I was little I used to listen to a lot of Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder - and also rock, a lot of rock - and because of the political situation they wouldn't allow us to play those songs on the radio, so we used to get our ear closer to the radio and put it on very low volume and listen to all those records," says Martinez.

He would also utilize the recordings that acquaintances would bring back from visits abroad to further his music education.

Credit Courtesy of the Artist

Martinez says he had a hard time making a living as a young musician. He left his home country in 1998 to tour with Canadian musician and bandleader Jane Bunnett, who also plays Afro-Cuban music.

He relocated to New York City, and in 2000, he won first place in the Thelonious Monk International Afro-Latin Jazz Hand Drum Competition.

It was a win that would change his life.

"I was able to spread myself as a musician and show that Afro-Cuban music was a big thing, it's a big deal," says Martinez.

"And on top of that I received so many different calls from different groups, to play with them travel with them, record with them, so it was a dream come true, you know?" 

He formed the Pedrito Martinez group in 2008, and performs weekly at Cuban restaurant Guantanamera in New York's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood.

However, it was just last year that the band released their first studio album. Martinez says that was for good reason. 

"Before this group I had two different groups. We never decided to go to the studio because I was not - not what I really wanted to do at that time. I feel that I did it at the right time, and I was really prepared and focused and conscious of what I really wanted to do," he says.

Through his career, Martinez has worked with numerous performers in the business, including neo-soul singer Me'Shell Ndegeocello, Sting, and jazz singer Cassandra Wilson. The playful beat and deep rhythms of Afro-Cuban music that link with other genres is what, Martinez says, makes his body-moving beats so relatable. 

"It's very simple to transport my knowledge into those groups that I've been playing for years," he says. "It's a great experience, it's beautiful - being able to come from a different land, a different culture, and fit perfect with somebody else's music, you know?"

The Pedrito Martinez Group will perform Thursday at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.