When Pedrito Martinez was a teenager in Havana, his favorite bands included Led Zeppelin, the Meters, and Stevie Wonder. That's not an uncommon range of influences for a percussionist born in 1973. What's remarkable is the manner in which he discovered them: through a scratchy radio signal traveling 90 miles over water from the Florida Keys.
"You had to put your ear very close to the radio, and it was a terrible connection," he recalls. "You had to put it very soft, because if the police or any people working for the government caught you listening to American music, you could go to jail."
Beyond his scratchy radio influences, Martinez grew up immersed in the rumba, the percussion-driven dance music that's predominant in Havana. By age 15, he was singing and playing in Santeria ceremonies, a religious influence that permeates his stage performances through chanting, harmonies, and melodies that echo his experiences in that culture.
At age 25, Martinez was earning $1 a month playing in a Havana hotel's house band when Canadian flautist/saxophonist Jane Bunnett asked him to join her touring band in North America. He never looked back, soon settling in New Jersey, where he steadily built a reputation as a versatile hand percussionist and scored gigs with Paul Simon, Wynton Marsalis, and John Scofield.
The house band he formed at Manhattan restaurant Guantanamera drew patrons like Eric Clapton. What began as a freeform jam eventually led to writing new arrangements and original music, coalescing into the Pedrito Martinez Group. In 2016, the band released its sophomore album, Habana Dreams, and their performance at the Cistern occurs just before they take off for an extensive South American tour.
The quartet's unconventional makeup — two percussionists, bass, and piano — is a result of Guantanamera's tiny stage. "The space was so little that we couldn't play with a bigger group," says Martinez. Typically, the timba style that PMG specializes in requires a large band with four percussionists, three horns, and multiple background vocalists. Thanks to each member's enthusiastic backing vocal contributions (and Martinez's ambidextrous, rapid drumming), the group was able to sound far bigger than the sum of its parts.
"We try to get the sound of an orchestra out of just four people," says Martinez, adding that the recent addition of high hat, snare, and cymbals to his kit has allowed the group to bring a funk element to some songs.
"I'm using my two arms, my two feet and my two legs," he says with a laugh. "I'm more busy now."
Although PMG improvises on stage, their focus is always on holding the rhythm steady.
"The groove is the spine of the group — it's what makes people dance. It's not about competition or speed," says Martinez. "We know how to grab an audience's attention right away."
That's also the case on Habana Dreams, which PMG traveled to Cuba to record at EGREM, the country's national studio. The album's nine tracks include appearances from Marsalis, singer Angelique Kidjo, and Panamanian singer Rubén Blades. Each song is underscored by the viable excitement the band felt during the recording process, an experience made possible by the easing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba during the final years of Barack Obama's presidency.
"It was amazing. It was magical, bro," exudes Martinez about the experience. "It was a dream come true. It was a beautiful journey. I saw a lot of great friends, and musicians that I used to play with when I was little."
Today, due to the Trump administration's posturing on Cuban relations, Martinez wonders if that experience will again be possible when the band prepares to record their third album this fall.
"Everybody's worried. It's so sad that Obama opened this thing, not just for Americans but for the whole world, and now it's like the opposite," says Martinez. "Everybody's feeling very insecure, feeling like another war is going to start. It's so bad. It's not good for people, it's not good for music, it's not good for the spirt, and it's not good for the world. It's so sad."
Despite the dire outlook, Martinez recognizes that he's in a position to spread joy through the music he grew up loving, even as he fled the political and economic constraints that harbored and incubated his culture for decades.
"Hopefully, the U.S. is not going to obligate the Cuban government to do things that are not good for the Cuban people," says Martinez, who has dual citizenship in the two countries. "I hope the relationship continues to get better and better, because that's best for everybody."
Martinez hopes for a continued thaw of relations between Cuba and the U.S., and his unique role as a dual cultural ambassador between the countries plays a small part in facilitating that. Rumba is good for the soul, and the Pedrito Martinez Group delivers a polyrhythmic elixir that sets feet to dancing and transports ears to an idyllic Havana that, for now, is open to explore at will.