Pedrito Martinez really wants the audience to dance at his shows, but he doesn't want any men shimmying onto his stage.
"Only girls, only girls!" his band hilariously implored, over and over, after inviting the ladies in attendance to dance atop the Cistern during their closing number.
Crowd participation — or lack thereof — was a principle theme of the evening. Martinez took the stage to a seated, nearly silent audience, saying, "I have some bad news. Everybody has to dance." Second percussionist Jhair Sala let us know it was bassist Sebastian Natal's birthday "so we've got to have fun," and admonished the crowd to clap, even before the first note of the concert had begun.
The band's first songs were either instrumental or vocally sparse, showing off the poly-rhythms of the two drummers and pianist Edgar Pantoja-Aleman's hypnotizing montuno. But 20 minutes in, people who had taken Martinez's opening statement to heart had to be asking themselves, "Will people stand and dance?" At some point, an audience — especially the senior set that seems to dominate the front sections of most Spoleto concerts — has to decide if they want to enjoy a very good show from their seat, or an exceptional show from their feet.
About 30 minutes in, Martinez simply commanded the audience to stand up. People obeyed and the energy surged. Sala showed off what a cowbell can do to drive a rhythm, while the audience clapped and swayed. But by the next song, the only remaining dancers were relegated to the sides of the stage, and until the final song, whenever couples made their way to the front to dance, they were shooed away by an usher.
Fortunately, Martinez is an expert in the art of loosening up a stiff crowd. And for many in attendance without a dancing partner — myself included — it was difficult to do anything more than sit or stand mesmerized by the lightning fast motion of Martinez's arms and hands. He's ripped, exhibiting a perfect balance of power and finesse. With eyes closed, you wouldn't realize the speed at which he's wheeling his right arm around to draw bass notes from the cajon he's sitting atop of. In addition to his cajon and array of congas, Martinez employs a high hat, snare drum and cymbals. When a song breaks into a rumba, he's a man in total motion.
But even at moments where Martinez could take over and wow the crowd, he's clearly so comfortable and confident in his fellow players. As a bandleader and a drummer — a rare combination — he's extremely adept at sharing the song to create something cohesive together. And where piano and bass alone might struggle to carry melodies when paired with two percussionists, the group effectively adds four more instruments on the strength of each member's vocal harmonies.
Pedrito Martinez Group makes very complex rhythms sound impossibly simple. Theirs is a performance you can take in studiously and in awe, or submit and shake to the rhythm. Martinez makes it clear that he'd prefer you do the latter.