Pedrito Martinez Turns Symphony Space Into a Dance Hall & Previews His New CD

Pedrito Martinez (right) performing with (left to right) Isaac Delgado, Isaac Delgado Jr. and Jhair Sala at Symphony Space/ photo Rahav Segev
Pedrito Martinez (right) performing with (left to right) Isaac Delgado, Isaac Delgado Jr. and Jhair Sala at Symphony Space/ photo Rahav Segev

The “Rumba in the Alley” that should have overtaken a stretch of Broadway between 93rd and 94th Street in Manhattan got rained out May 1. It was intended as a kickoff for the first installment of Symphony Space’s ambitious new annual undertaking, The Source Project—weeklong celebrations tracing the influence of Africa on New World cultures.
This year’s focus was Afro-Cuban culture, with mixture of well-curated music, discussion and documentary films. It’s a shame that percussionist Román Díaz didn’t get to use his rather magical powers to restore, if only temporarily, a stretch of Broadway that once reflected the power of Afro Latin influence in New York City yet is now mostly gentrified into yet another urban anyplace.
Díaz can do that sort of thing, as I described here.
Still, one of Díaz’s prime disciples, percussionist and singer Pedrito Martinez, closed the Symphony Space series on Sunday night with a concert that channeled a slice of this history and galvanized a still-vital community, one that knows how to clap a correct clave and turn any theater into a dance hall.
Many in Sunday’s audience were likely drawn by the special guest who joined Martinez’s quartet for much of the evening: Isaac Delgado, as commanding a singer and as much an author of the Cuban style known as timba as exists.
The show was also a pre-release celebration for “Habana Dreams” (due June 10 on Motéma Music), the second album as a leader from Martinez (he’s guested on many others). This one was recorded mostly in Martinez’s native Cuba last year: Delgado is one of several notable guest artists on the CD, as are Díaz, Ruben Blades, Wynton Marsalis and Angelique Kidjo, among others.
Yet the real fascination—aside from Martinez’s arresting gifts as a percussionist and a singer—is the quartet interplay Martinez has honed since 2008 through three-nights-a-week residency at the midtown Manhattan Cuban restaurant Guantanamera and, more recently, at Manhattan’s Subrosa club. Bassist Alvaro Benavides and keboardist Edgar Pantoja-Aleman (who replaced Ariacne Trujillo a couple years ago) work in powerful sync with him. Yet it is Martinez’s rapport with Jhair Sala, whose mastery of a cowbell’s possibilities cannot be overstated, that is the heart of this band.
Pedrito Martinez Quartet: lvaro Benavides, Pedrito Martinez, Jhair Sala and Edgar Pantoja-Aleman in Havana/photo by Danielle Moir

At Symphony Space the emphasis was on dance-inducing timba, in the style of Delgado’s NG La Banda. The CD explores the wider range and depth of Martinez’s expression. “We play Afro-Cuban music, with all the influences you’d find here in New York,” he told me for a 2012 Wall Street Journal profile. “But it’s also weird and unique. I am clear about where my music comes from, but that doesn’t make me traditional. I am a cosmopolitan musician who plays whatever I like.”
I’ll write more about “Habana Dreams” soon in The Journal. And I’ll be keeping an eye on this band as I have done for the past six years. You should, too.

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