Meet Members of Pedrito Martinez Group
The Pedrito Martinez Group performs in Ann Arbor on March 14, 2014 as part of a unique double-bill with the trio of Cuban Pianist Alfredo Rodríguez.
In this video, get a peek at the behind-the-scenes moments of producing the group’s debut records, and learn more about each member of the group:
Interested in more? Read our interview with Cuban Pianist Alfredo Rodríguez.
Buena Vista Social Club is a Party Foul
Has this ever happened to you? You find yourself in a conversation with someone who knows a lot about music (and probably craft brewed beer, artisanal fermented foods, and expensive jeans). When the topic shifts to Cuban music you make the mistake of saying something like, “Oh I love Cuban music, I listen to Buena Vista Social Club all the time.” A smirk quickly appears on the face of your friend. All of the air goes out of the room. You know you have said something terribly wrong, but you are not sure exactly what.
If this has ever happened to you (or even if it hasn’t), you need to get tickets to come see Alfredo Rodríguez and Pedrito Martínez, two talented young musicians from Cuba who are reworking the Cuban sounds they grew up with.
“The Special Period”
First a disclaimer: I love Buena Vista Social Club. I do not care who smirks at me for it. But here is a little context. Buena Vista Social Club appeared in 1997 during what Cubans call “The Special Period.” Cuba’s socialist economy entered a severe crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union, as trade and assistance from Communist Europe suddenly vanished. Meanwhile the United States tightened its trade embargo. In response, the Cuban government shifted its economic strategy towards the development of tourism and the marketing of Cuban culture to international audiences. At the same time, the Clinton administration loosened restrictions on travel by Cuban artists to the United States. Buena Vista Social Club – a phenomenon which includes an album, a film, and many international tours – was the most commercially successful cultural enterprise of this new landscape. And it is brilliant. But the vision of Cuba that Buena Vista Social Club sold was one where time had stood still: a world of crumbling Art Deco buildings, well maintained vintage automobiles, and picturesque elderly black performers playing exactly the same music that they had played in the decades before the revolution.
So the knock on Buena Vista Social Club is that it reintroduced international audiences to a Cuba that no longer existed. This was our loss, because the music that had evolved in Cuba in the 1970s and 1980s, and was still evolving in Cuba in the 1990s and beyond, was pretty special. This is where Alfredo Rodríguez and Pedrito Martínez come in. They came of age in Cuba in the Special Period, when “Chan Chan” played in every bar in Madrid and Paris, but that sort of music was only really heard in hotels catering to tourists in Cuba. Their music gives a glimpse of what was happening in Cuba as the elderly musicians of Buena Vista Social Club conquered the world.
Music: A hallmark of Cuban socialism
One of the amazing things about music in Havana in these years was the extent of conservatory training; expanded access to music education was a hallmark of the cultural policy of Cuban socialism. So it was not uncommon for popular musicians in Cuba in these years to have advanced classical training. Born in 1985, Alfredo Rodríguez, the son of well-known popular musician and television personality, grew up in this system. He moved back and forth between the classical training of the conservatory and the popular music he played with his father. Eventually he found his niche in the world of jazz. Cuban musicians from had been experimenting with jazz since the 1970s. By the 1990s, after the much-publicized visit of Dizzy Gillespie to Cuba, the top players in the Cuban jazz world became part of the international circuit. Some defected, but others simply enjoyed the new freedom to tour outside Cuba that came with the new economic strategies of the regime. Rodriguez was playing in Montreaux in 2006 when he met Quincy Jones. Then he was playing with his father’s band in Mexico when he decided to cross the border into the US to work with Quincy.
A second important musical trend in Cuba after the revolution was shifting official policy towards Afro-Cuban folkloric music, percussive styles like rumba, abakua, and batá (the music played during Santería ceremonies). African slaves and their descendants developed these styles of music in the context of spiritual practice and community life not the music industry. In the 1960s and 1970s, the master percussionists of these traditions became employees of state folklore agencies, performing Afro-Cuban music on stage. In the 1990s, folklore groups and the state began selling this version of Cuban culture abroad too. Afro-Cuban cultural groups like Muñequitos de Matanzas began travelling to the US. Pedrito Martínez grew up in this world, winning international competitions in Afro-Cuban hand drumming and entering the world of professional musicianship on international tours with Muñequitos de Matanzas. He also won international exposure as part of a rumba ensemble that appeared in the film Calle 54 (2000). We cannot link to video of this segment because of copyright, but it is worth watching on Netflix if you can.
Muñequitos de Matanzas during their first US tour in 1992:
Timba is perhaps the most important of all the musical innovations in Cuba during the Special Period. Timba was a dance music popular among the urban, Afro-descended Cubans who found themselves increasingly disenfranchised by the shifting economic strategies of the socialist government. Timba lyrics adopted street slang and discussed taboo subjects including the informal economy of hustling, linked to the growth in tourism. Built of the same materials as salsa, timba followed a distinct path. Most important was a restructuring of the classic Cuban dance music around explicitly Afro-Cuban rhythms and a much more experimental approach to rhythm in general. Batá or rumba variants were as likely to form the central rhythmic arguments as the classic son tumbaos. Timba also built on on the funk-fusion sound of the experimental jazz group Irakere.
NG La Banda Santa Palabra:
Bacalao con Pan:
Timba was the alter-ego of Buena Vista Social Club, young and edgy, informed by Cuban jazz, by Afro-Cuban folklore, and often played by musicians who had been trained in conservatories. The point is not that this music was more authentic, somehow free of the influence of marketing. The interplay of international promotion and local musical scenes helped produce a wide range of musical options in and around Cuba over the past twenty-five years, including a dizzying array of musical talent. The upcoming UMS concert offers a glimpse at this world. Alfredo Rodríguez is a conservatory trained technical virtuoso, with a background in Cuban popular music, who grew up idolizing Kieth Jarrett. He experiments at the boundaries between straight ahead jazz and Cuban jazz.
…y bailaría la negra:
Pedrito Martínez is a percussionist who played with Munequitos de Matanzas when that band was already making regular commercial tours around the world. He explores timba and Cuban funk fusion in a small quartet format, just a keyboard, bass, and bongó player to accompany his congas. Both musicians continue to rethink the music they grew up with in conversation with the wide range of international musicians and styles they embody.
Please do not smirk the next time someone tells you that they love of Buena Vista Social Club. Just smile, and tell them about the concert you just saw by Alfredo Rodríguez. Nod and lend them your copy of Pedrito Martínez’s new record with its amazing cover of of Robert Johnson.
Travelling Riverside Blues:
Artist Interview: Cuban Pianist Alfredo Rodríguez
Alfredo Rodríguez is a Cuban pianist and composer. He was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1985. With a well-known Cuban singer as his father, it is no wonder that he has been surrounded by music his entire life. He started studying at the Manuel Saumell Cuban Conservatory at the age of 7, and has been playing and creating music ever since.
Alfredo spent some time talking with us about his experiences in Cuba and in the United States, his thoughts about a musician’s life, and his upcoming work. He’ll perform in Ann Arbor on March 14, 2014 as part of a unique double-bill with Pedrito Martinez Group.
Annick Odom: We know that you’ve played in Ann Arbor and Detroit before, but we’re really excited to have you playing for the first time with UMS in March. Your work draws on jazz and Cuban music traditions. How do you balance these in your own music?
Alfredo Rodríguez: Well, I started as a part of his [my father’s] band when I was very young, about 13. We used to play popular music, music from the traditions of Cuba and his compositions as well. I combined that kind of performing, that kind of ambiance, with the classical school.
In Cuban music, there is a lot of improvisation, but I didn’t know much about improvisation in classical music at that time. My uncle gave me an album called The Köln Concert by Keith Jarrett [the legendary jazz pianist], and that got me into improvisation.
I was used to Cuban traditional music and classical composers like Johann Sebastian Bach, and also to Latin composers. After that CD though, I found the music of many of the pioneers of the be-bop era, a lot of different musicians, mostly from the United States. I was falling in love with the way those composers and instruments created music.
AO: We presented Keith Jarrett in 2000! What exactly about that recording drew you in so much? What made you so excited about improvisation?
AR: Well, my uncle gave me that CD with an idea in mind, because he was not very involved in piano music. He gave me that CD because he knew that I was very into that world. But I wasn’t expecting anything it. I just put it on. It was a great introduction for me because Keith Jarrett had that touch and that knowledge about classical music, and he shows a lot of those influences in his playing. It was a good introduction for me to improvisation and jazz music, too, of course.
AO: You said that you played a lot with your father while growing up and that you played a lot of popular music in Cuba. How would you say that you’ve individualized yourself from previous generations of musicians from Cuba?
AR: I guess I would say that [the musicians in my generation] are changing every day. We have different experiences every day. [My generation] grew up in a different situation than the generations before us in Cuba. We had different problems, different ways of living, [different] points of view. And of course those differences are the reasons that music changes too.
What I like to do with my music is to just express the present, just express how I am feeling, what I am going through in that exact moment. I guess what I am trying to say is that everybody always has something to say, and it is always different for everybody. And that kind of honesty is what I look for in terms of music, and in terms of living my life.
So it’s very simple for me, I just try to express who I am when I play my music and compose. I try and show my [Cuban] roots and also the transculturation that I have been living since I have been here in the United States.
AO: Do you find yourself playing any differently since you moved to the US or do you play pretty similarly to when you lived in Cuba?
AR: No, I’ve definitely changed. The United States is a different country with different culture, which has been a very positive process for me in terms of learning.
[Cuba] is an island, and due to the country’s political history we have been only around Cubans for more than 50 years. The culture that we have been creating for so many years is very unique and powerful because we are surrounded by Cubans, but at the same time, it’s contradictory because we haven’t had the opportunity to have confrontation and transculturation with different cultures.
I wanted to know different cultures and meet different people with different points of view so that I could incorporate all of that into myself and reflect it in my music.
AO: Let’s talk about your upcoming concert here in Ann Arbor. Who will be coming with you? What will you perform? Can you also talk a little bit about your upcoming album?
AR: Actually I am releasing my next album The Invasion Parade on March 4th, which is going to be very, very close to the concert [in Ann Arbor on March 14]. I am going to be featuring the same trio that I had for my album at the concert. We are featuring different artists, but the main trio that I perform with is Peter Slavov, a Bulgarian bass player, and Henry Cole, a drummer from Puerto Rico.
We are going to be performing the music on this upcoming album as well as music from the past. But to be honest, music is very natural and spontaneous for us, so we just like to play songs that will fit in the moment that we are living.
It’s difficult to say exactly what songs we’ll play or even what the music is going to sound like. I guess what I mean to say is that we have the message that we want to tell people: 70% of my music is improvisation, and the other part is rhythm. So it’s kind of unexpected, and in that way, we learn more from ourselves.
AO: You’re sharing the bill with Pedrito Martinez. Have you ever played with him before?
AR: It’s very funny because Pedrito is part of my album [The Invasion Parade], too. I love his playing! Pedrito is one of the musicians coming out of Cuba that I admire so much because of his incorporation of our culture into his vocals and percussion. And speaking of my album, it also features Esperenza Spalding, and horn players from Cuba and Puerto Rico. But yeah, speaking of Pedrito, we have a really, really close relationship in both in terms of music and friendship.
AO: It seems that you are already thinking a lot about the upcoming months, but where do you see your music going even further into the future?
AR: That is a good question. To be honest, I don’t think too much about the future. What I can share with you is something that I’ve been working on since the past, until today, which is creating music.
I am also currently writing a lot of music for the symphony. The premiere of my first symphonic work will be this year in November, and I will be performing one of my compositions with an orchestra at the Barcelona Jazz Festival. And I’m working on new music for my trio and my upcoming CDs.
I do it [compose music] because I just need it. It’s like water for me. If I am inspired, I write something. I’m just composing music, doing what I like to do. I feel very fortunate about that because I just have the opportunity to live from what I love to do, and I am very grateful for that.
Interested in more? Check out Alfredo’s new album or get tickets to his performance with Pedrito Martinez Group in Ann Arbor on March 14, 2014.
Q&A with Cheikh Lô
A superb singer and songwriter as well as a distinctive guitarist and drummer, Cheikh Lô blend of semi-acoustic flavors — West and Central African, funk, Cuban, flamenco — has been distilled into his most mature, focused, yet diverse statement today, his new album, Jamm. He performs at the Michigan Theater on April 13.
Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof is assistant professor of history, American culture, and Latina/o studies at the University of Michigan.
Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof: You now live in Senegal. But you are from Burkina Faso, which is a crossroads of many languages and cultures. What kinds of music did you hear in your house as a child?
Cheikh Lô: In my childhood, I heard all the music of Latin America and especially music from Cuba. This was music that came to West Africa. Congo and rumba were also heavily influenced by the music of West Africa. In the 70’s, I began to listen to pop music, soul, reggae, Jimmy Cliff, James Brown, and Michael Jackson, whom I remember seeing during his visit to Dakar in 1971.
JHG: On your latest album you sing a wonderful version of the song Seyni, which is a rumba. You even sing some of the lyrics in Spanish. I understand that this was the first song you ever sang in public. I think this may be surprising to audiences in Michigan. What was the importance of Cuban music for West African musicians of your generation?
Cheikh Lô: It was very important. We all started listening to that music and learned to play the chords on the guitar. It was a great reference for musicians of our generation. After Cuban music impacted us, it was music that had its origins in Africa and was created by Africans transported to America. The music of Cuba penetrated throughout West Africa and many musicians of my generation went to school there thanks to music scholarships.
JHG: You later moved to Dakar, one of the great musical capitals in Africa. There, you became known for your ability to blend the many popular musical traditions of the continent, especially Senegalese Mblax and Congolese Soukous. Please help our Michigan audience to understand these two styles.
Cheikh Lô: For me the combination of different styles has always been natural. From my beginnings in the first band I formed, there were musicians of all nationalities in Africa: Congo, Mali, and Burkina. Each sub-region of Africa has its specific characteristics. I have also spent time in hotels playing standards of Western music. The mixture of styles has always been natural in my career as an artist.
JHG: Of course, you have gone on to add other sounds as well. You toured with an all-star funk band led by Pewee Elis (who led James Brown’s band for years). He and Tony Allen (longtime drummer with Fela Kuti) appear on your new album. You also recorded in Bahia with Carlinhos Brown and Ile Aye. Can you tell us about your experiences collaborating with artists in the African diaspora?
Cheikh Lô: Being open to musical influences is very important and has always brought me many satisfactions. With Pewee, our long relationship has been extraordinary. He has worked in 3 of my 4 albums, and I hope our relationships continues to last over time. With Tony Allen, I remember when we met in 2004 at the concert “Black President.” I played the drums with Tony and another American drummer. The experience was incredible. Carlinhos Brown and I share a very similar vision of music, so collaborating is always fun.
JHG: Your lyrics are quite political. I think this might be lost on audiences in Michigan because most of us don’t understand Wolof, or Jula, or even French (although you would be amazed at how many Senegalese fans turned up when Baobab was here a few years ago). Can you explain the message of your songs Conia and Warico?
Cheikh Lô: For this I recommend reading the full transcriptions into French and English. They do a magnificent job of translation, and it’s well worth being read by the public in its entirety.
JHG: Speaking of politics, the last few years have seen a number of musicians move into political posts. Gilberto Gil was minister of culture in Brazil, Michel Martelly is now President of Haiti, Youssou N’Dour, who produced several of your albums, is running for President in Senegal. Barak Obama has been caught on film singing Al Green and B.B. King songs. Can we expect you to run for office?
Cheikh Lô: I do not think that I would devote myself to politics. It’s not my job. You have to be honest with yourself and know what your role is in life. Being a career politician is difficult and takes many years of work to be done well. I’ve worked with people in my community, not from a political standpoint but artistically. My mission will always be music. There is also corruption in politics, and I’m not willing to enter that world.
JHG: So what is next for Cheikh Lô?
Cheikh Lô: We want to have a big U.S. tour. Our group is trying to offer a wide range of music to American audiences with a show full of nuance and rhythm.