When I saw Pedro Martinez pull a bandana out of some hidden pocket, and I knew what was coming next: By the time I'd made my frantic way to the front, he was already stripped bare to his chest. Pedro's facial expression gets otherworldly when he's playing rhythms for los santos, or even dancing a secular dance like the rumba. This isn't Arthur Murray's "rhumba" of course; it's the answer to the eternal question of any and all motivational humor regarding the chicken: It's all about the vacunao. [This pelvic thrust in rumba's guaguanco is more implied through textiles than touch.] Dancers mime rooster and hen, macho y hembra, as the pair struts in a low crouch, knees opening and closing. Pedro used the bandana as an extension of his arm, powerful and provocative, and Cucu Martinez (no relation) undulated her hippie guajira skirts opened and closed, agile and protective. The audience was clearly getting off without knowing exactly what they were seeing. But it doesn't matter; they can guess that it is something Afro-Cuban, and that it is something primal.
On a visit to Cuba in 1930, Langston Hughes described his first experience observing the guaguanco this way: "The music seemed to take a new lease on life. Now various couples, one or two at a time, essayed the rumba in the center of the court as the rest of the party gathered to watch. I could not make out whether it was a dance contest or not, and my hosts were slightly tipsy by then and not so very coherent in their explanations. But when the dancing couples seemed to tire, others took the floor. Sometimes a short burst of applause would greet an especially adept pair as the man swept around the woman like a cock about a hen, or the woman without losing a beat of the rhythm went very slowly down to the floor on firm feet and undulated up again." Virtually the same dance Hughes witnessed 75 years ago in Havana was up there on stage, at least for a moment, in the Cat's Cradle.
"Pedro is special," says Skooter Williams, a church boy from Georgia who has replaced Yerba Buena's previous drummer, bringing to the band his powerful brand of Southern gospel swing. It's his first time working in tandem with Afro-Cuban percussion, and "I like it," he says.
Pedro is mum on what his new solo record will sound like, but says bandleader Andres Levin is producing it for him right now. He originally left Cuba with Canadian soprano saxophonist Jane Bunnett, known for her jazz collaborations with Afro-Cuban folkloric artists. (Rumors say her nickname on the island is "Habana Juana.") Since then, he's gigged around as a santeria singer and session drummer, and plays full sets of both congas and timbales with Yerba Buena. The New York-based band projected a vintage fashionista look this time, and had fewer touring members--no horns and no rappers. Cucu's nasal sardonic talk singing isn't as robust as the Caribbean MCs from the first album, but it keeps the ball rolling.
Ambi, Brentwood Shopping Center, Raleigh
The movie marquis with running lights and the snaking velvet VIP rope seem out of place at this hushed Atlantic Avenue strip mall on a Friday night. Now playing: Ambi, one of the newer Latin clubs to pop up in Raleigh in the past year or so. Inside it feels a lot like a club in an old-time movie: rows of packed tables are up on stages, surrounding the dance floor which has a bar on each end. To pass through in any direction feels like a gauntlet. The black and white linoleum dance floor is lit from above by a disorienting sea of disco lights. (The throbbing strobe makes it hard to cruise the dance floor at best, and dangerous for spinning at worst.) There is some kind of flame machine creating a display in a distant corner. Young Hispanics make up the biggest demographic, a lot of couples on weekend dates; a few Anglo ballroom dancers are getting some exercise.
The increasingly run-down Brentwood shopping center is also home to the Bravo Bravo Café and a poolhall called El Rincon, so cruise all the storefronts before making your selection. Just around the corner from Ambi and Bravo Bravo, the former Plum Crazy, where Salsa Carolina used to hold its biggest Friday night shindigs, now houses a discount grocery. How odd, to think the first place I heard a live salsa band play and the first place I saw 500 men in cowboy hats listening to La Banda Recodo, is now loaded down with well-litdiscount grocery aisles.
Ambi is open Wednesday-Saturday, admission ranges from $5-7 for women and $13-15 for men. Price of a Corona is on the median at $4. The women's bathroom has numerous stalls and good cell phone reception; I noticed one woman in there with her cell phone in the switchblade-open position, a tattoo behind her shoulder that read "Daddy," calling for backup.
Don't go to Ambi if you can't stand reggaeton or cumbia, as those made up the longest sets when I went. You will also hear bachata and merengue. If salsa is a priority, skip it; I didn't hear any come on in over an hour. There is plenty of security personnel inside and outside the building, and be ready for purse checks and metal scans.
Live Music Pick
Free dance with live music by Charanga Carolina, Nov. 21, 7-10 p.m., Great Hall in the UNC Student Union
Eddie Palmieri, Willie Colon, Ruben Blades and Cachao are part of the curriculum for the UNC performing ensemble Charanga Carolina. This Latin orchestra is a historical blend of charanga-style violins and flute with hard salsa's horns, piano and Latin percussion, graced with the vocal agility of sonero Nelson Delgado. (Delgado is well-known locally as a member of the Triangle's longest running Latin band, Carnavalito.) Top-flight student musicians are building a repertoire of charts under the baton of Dr. David F. Garcia, an L.A. native who has made this unique ensemble his mission since 2004.
Before you ride over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house this Thanksgiving, stick around for this Monday night live concert of the Charanga Carolina in the Great Hall of the Student Union, from 7-10 p.m. Not a sit-down show, the floor will be cleared for dancing. "We really want to get a lot of dancers to come out for this one," says Garcia, who plans two sets of music including salsa dura, charanga, son montuno, danzon and mambo. The event includes a performance by UNC's Sabrosura dance troupe and DJed music in the intermission. This event is free and open to the public, so bring grandmother along and get ready to dance off some of that pumpkin pie in advance.
Coming up: Friday, Dec. 16, Bio Ritmo is scheduled to play Montas' live Christmas party; see www.montaslounge.com for details.
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