First Listen: 'The Pedrito Martinez Group'

NPR icon by Patrick Jarenwattananon
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Petra Richterova

Pedrito Martinez has earned the right to brag a little: He's among the world's best Afro-Latin hand percussionists, appearing on more than 100 recordings in the last 15 years. But "La Habana," from his band's new self-titled album, states an especially bold claim. "Nadie conoce La Habana mejor que yo," he sings in the song's first line. That is, "Nobody knows Havana better than I do."

Martinez, who recently turned 40, left Cuba in 1998; you might doubt his credentials on that account. And he's worked often in more worldly, culture-merging environments; his other 2013 release, Rumba De La Isla, merges Cuban and flamenco rumba, and he was an original member of the Latin fusion band Yerba Buena. Of course, he also learned percussion in Havana street-jam sessions, continues to practice Santería as a batá drum ringleader, and sings with irresistible charisma. The more you listen to him, the more you realize he is, almost impossibly, both a cosmopolitan entertainer and an authentic folklorist.

His band is equally full of seemingly impossible resumes. Pianist Ariacne Trujillo also takes turns at lead vocal; she took a highly contested scholarship to a top Cuban conservatory while moonlighting as a singer and dancer at a major nightclub. (You'll see evidence if you catch a live show.) Bassist Álvaro Benavides is a Venezuelan-born, Berklee-trained virtuoso. And the band's fourth member, percussionist Jhair Sala, came to the U.S. from Peru and sought out Martinez for lessons; the two have worked together closely for years. In fact, as the Pedrito Martinez Group, all four play three sets a night, three days a week at a Cuban restaurant in Manhattan. How many world-class bands do that anymore?

That's ample time for the band to try on a lot of suits. The uncanny part is how well they all seem to fit. This band does timba, Yoruban chants, something you might call "Latin jazz"; it executes originals by Pedrito, imagistic ballads, Led Zeppelin ("Travelling Riverside Blues") and The Jackson 5 ("I'll Be There"). It's joined by guests like trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, guitarist John Scofield and drummer (and producer) Steve Gadd. It jumps out of stop-time breaks with hyperkinetic percussion, or quoting the "Malagueña" or Gershwin or Grieg, or forceful four-part vocal harmony. Could these guys really be this good at all these things?

That's not really a question most people consider at a Pedrito Martinez Group show. For all the gonzo kitchen-sink approach, this band also serves as a dance-party starter, like any Afro-Cuban unit worth its salt. Perhaps, then, its leader does know Cuba pretty well after all.

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