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Meet the Latin music revitalizers of New York

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The Cuban-born conguero Pedrito Martinez has long been known as a charismatic sideman, a drummer with flair and history in his toolkit. But since the release of his Pedrito Martinez Group album late last year, he has turned into a recognizable New York City frontman, too. He's made best-of lists, won critics' awards, been featured in The New Yorker and on NPR, even trended on iTunes.

And during his group's standing, thrice-weekly gig at midtown Manhattan bar Guantanamera, Martinez has earned some unlikely fans. Recent drop-ins have included young luminaries such as Cuban singer Mayito Rivera, plus Eric Clapton, Derek Trucks and members of Earth, Wind & Fire.

"It's getting big," he says. "And that's what we've been adding all these years to my music you know, the New York vibe. It is the place where all the musicians are hanging now. It's a beautiful spirit and vibe."

Invoked by Latin music enthusiasts with his first name alone, Pedrito has been an icon for more than a decade. The 40-year-old moved to the U.S. from Havana 15 years ago, and the New York scene quickly embraced him. The city's jazz musicians treasured Martinez' injections of authentic Cuban folklore into their studio sessions. He added not only rumba and batá drumming but also Santería songs, sung in the Yoruba language that Cubans still use to address African gods known as orishas.

"I learned those Yoruba chants since I was little, and they are in my blood," Martinez explains. "It's very beautiful, very spiritual music. People don't even ask what it means, they just feel that it's something pure and real."

Martinez' sideman-to-star story seems unique, but his role in New York isn't entirely new. He is the most recent in a lineage of Cuban congueros, stretching back to the '40s, who have had a wide-ranging impact on American music. Cándido Camero, Francisco Aguabella, Carlos "Patato" Valdés and Mongo Santamaria all channeled Cuba's raw power, street smarts and well-preserved African traditions. They added it to American jazz, pop and funk. Chief in that group is Chano Pozo, who co-created "Cubop" with Dizzy Gillespie. Martinez is the Chano Pozo of this generation, tapping deep into Cuban roots to create a new signature New York sound.

Martinez has benefitted from New York's stylistic impurity; his music shows the telltale signs of participation in jazz, pop and salsa projects. For instance, Martinez recorded two albums and toured heavily with Yerba Buena, the Grammy-nominated pop fusion band.

"Pedrito's time in Yerba Buena brought something out in him," observes musician and historian Ned Sublette, author of Cuba and its Music. "Pop gigs tighten up your chops. You have to hit the stage full-force. He does."

That gig brought him closer to New York's hip-hop scene, too, an influence that's infiltrated the Pedrito Martinez Group.

"When I used to play for Yerba Buena, we did so many concerts opening for Wyclef, Jay [Z], Busta Rhymes. I always loved rap," Martinez says. "We said, let's add a little bit of rapping when we got the chance."

But what truly makes the Pedrito Martinez Group jump is its combination of traditional rumba drums and choruses with timba's energetic piano montunos and funky basslines. A hyperactive form of salsa that took hold in Havana in the '90s, timba is usually played by orquestas of 14 or more. But Martinez matches the energy of those much larger ensembles with just four voices and a bare-bones rhythm section.

Martinez and his fellow Cuban countrywoman and pianist Ariacne Trujillo Duran serve as the group's dueling soneros, or lead singers. For most Latin jazz combos, vocals are a luxury. The band's music springs from Cuban sources but bounces wildly between Gershwin and Beenie Man, Michael Jackson and Rachmaninoff. The experimentation is so free flowing that salsa dancers, accustomed to predictable club beats, may sometimes stumble at the group's playful mental leaps.

The chemistry of the four gelled almost by accident, the result of the standing gig Martinez maintains at Guantanamera.

"I think the best thing that happened to us is that we never really looked for this band," explains bassist Alvaro Benavides. "We just realized, wow, when it's the four of us, the chemistry is amazing. We communicate very instinctively."

This article appeared in print with the headline "International shipping"

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