Pedrito Martinez headlines San Antonio’s Jazz’SAlive Festival – mySA

When I call him on Thursday morning, September 22, Pedrito Martinez is sitting in his New York City home, preparing for a trip. Come Friday night, September 23, he will be sitting behind his drum kit in downtown San Antonio’s Travis Park, headlining the first night of the city’s 39th annual Jazz’SAlive Festival.

He’s played in San Antonio plenty of times before, but the familiarity doesn’t abate his excitement. 

“I just want people to bring their dancing shoes,” he says in even, Cuban-accented English. “We’re gonna make sure that everybody is going to have a good time.”

Born in 1973, Martinez is a Grammy nominated Afro-Cuban singer, percussionist, and lifelong musician. His music is frenetic yet rhythmic. If you have any rhythm at all, it makes you want to dance.  If you haven’t listened to his latest project, The Pedrito Martinez Group, perhaps you’ve heard his previous band, Yerba Buena. If you’re still unfamiliar, you’ve definitely heard at least a laundry list of his collaborators.

His career is expansive, one that began when he was 11 in the Cayo Hueso neighborhood of Old Havana in the 80s. Captivated by the street musicians in his neighborhood and coming from a musical family — he credits his mother as being a beautiful singer — it quickly occurred to him that music was the thing he needed to be doing for the rest of his life.

The Pedrito Martinez Group is set to headline Jazz'SAlive in Travis Park Friday, September 23 at 9 p.m. 

The Pedrito Martinez Group is set to headline Jazz’SAlive in Travis Park Friday, September 23 at 9 p.m. 

Roberto Cifarelli

As a teen, Martinez played all over the island, joining Rumba bands with artists like Tata Guines and Los Muñequitos de Matanzas players. In 1998, he relocated to New York City, bringing the Afro-Caribbean sounds of his youth with him, later infusing All-American songs with rhythmic elements of Rumba and Yoruba, a religious variant of Santeria with roots in Eastern Africa involving ceremonial chants and Bata drums.

Cultural fusion, preserving spiritual elements of the Afro-Carribean diaspora, is crucial to Martinez’s work. A spiritual person, and a priest, all his music is deeply entrenched in Yoruba.

“I’ve been on so many records, I always try to make sure I can add some Yoruba chants to the arrangements, even on my albums, I always add some bata, some rumba,” Martinez says.

In addition to working with genre-defining Cuban Rumba and folkloric players, Martinez has injected himself into the work of some of the tallest titans in the music industry. You can hear him on Bruce Springsteen and Elton John records, and with Paul Simon and Sting, just to name a few. His friend, Eric Clapton, recently collaborated with Martinez on the 2020 song “My Father’s Eyes.” 

Many of these legends he’d later work with were the same ones he used to listen to — clandestine — in Cuba. 

“When I was very young as a teenager, I used to listen to people like Bruce Springsteen and Eric Clapton, Earth Wind and Fire, Kool and the Gang, Stevie Wonder. It was illegal to listen to American music in Cuba back in the day, but we were able to listen to the radio with the volume very low, ” shares Martinez. “Cuban musicians love American music. So for me, it was never hard to incorporate or add my feelings and my soul to the American music.”

As far as the next year goes, Martinez intends to put out more music before the year ends and continue touring around the world. This week finds him eager to perform. 

“We are ready for Texas!” he exclaims. 

The Pedrito Martinez Group will take the Main Stage in Travis Park on Friday and play from 9 to 10:30 p.m. 

Jazz’SAlive will kick-off on Friday at 5 p.m. and will continue through Saturday, September 24 from 11 a.m to 10:30 p.m. Stages will be set up in both Travis and Legacy Park. The festival is free and open to the public. A complete artist schedule is available online. 

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