The Cuban percussionist and singer trades riffs with the salsa star on the first single from Martinez’s Habana Dreams album
The international spotlight that was on the Rolling Stones recent concert in Havana left Cuban groups in the shadows. And lately, with American artists in something of a race to perform on the island, Cuban musicians have been largely left out of the buzzing conversation about music in Cuba; something that’s both ironic and just wrong.
Habana Dreams, the new album (June 10, Motema Music) from percussionist and singer Pedrito Martinez, who performed with his band at a party for the Stones in Havana last week, should bring some deserved attention back to the artists from the Caribbean musical superpower, who were rocking before rock-and-roll was born, and who throughout the decades have continued to stage musical revolutions no matter what the political climate.
Today, exclusively on Billboard, we premiere the first single from Habana Dreams, “Compa Galletano,” featuring Ruben Blades.
Martinez has lived in the New York City area since 1998. He was a member of the innovative Latin fusion band Yerba Buena, and, after years playing with his own band at a small Cuban restaurant in Manhattan, he’s recently become a sort of Cuban music ambassador, performing around the city as well as, increasingly, on tour. This spring he’ll appear at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, as well as at Havana’s Musicabana Festival, among other dates. Habana Dreams was recorded in Havana with top Cuban musicians and other special guests including Blades, in addition to the members of his Pedrito Martinez group.
The record marks a homecoming, although Martinez has never strayed from his Cuban musical and spiritual roots, staying true to sacred Afro-Cuban traditions as well as Cuban popular forms including the ritually-derived rumba, and the Latin-jazz infused timba, contemporary Cuba’s polyrythmic dance music style. In the 1990s, timba became known abroad as Cuba’s answer to salsa, but, like other contemporary Cuban sounds, it failed to make a commercial impact in the United States. On this album, Martinez suggests it’s time to take another listen.
Ruben Blades, the international star who was part of the creation of salsa in New York in the 1970s, became a fan of Martinez, attending his shows, and now taking on the role of what the liner notes call a “godfather” of the Habana Dreams album. Blades, of course, is no stranger to Cuban music’s historical influence and its fundamental role as the base of that urban New York sound that became known as salsa, or to Cuba’s contemporary players. The Panamanian singer-songwriter included his version of the song “Muevate,” by Juan Formell, the founder of leading Cuban contemporary dance band Los Van Van, on his 1985 album Escenas; through the years he shared international stages with Van Van in an era when most U.S.-based Latin music stars, influenced by what was considered politically correct in Miami, publicly avoided associations with the island.
“Compa Galletano” has roots in traditional rumba, and lyrics sung by Martinez in the African Yoruba language, as well as in Spanish. Blades puts a time code on the song when he riffs that “el mundo espera que se levanta el bloqueo” (“the world waits for the embargo to be lifted.”) On the track, Martinez and Blades joyfully improvise, musicians spread out with conversations between piano and conga. Synth chords, an American-influenced hallmark of the contemporary Cuban sound, make an appearance, as do handclaps.
Debuting his new album with a single that clocks over six minutes, it’s obvious that Martinez is not making a play for mainstream Latin radio. With “Compa Galletano” and the Habana Dreams album, he’s doing what comes naturally — putting the spotlight on contemporary Cuban music.