Cuban Fire

By: José Manuel Simián

So The New York Times finally discovered the Pedrito Martínez Group (PMG)—which almost makes up for that time they called Ricardo Arjona “one of Latin pop’s finest lyricists.”

But let’s stay focused, people: if you’re a fan of Afro-Cuban music, you’ve probably known Martínez for a while, either for his work with pop outfit Yerba Buena or his appearance on more than a hundred records for other artists. The news is that his quartet, the Pedrito Martínez Group, recently released its eponymous debut album, and that means that the rest of the world is about to discover one of the most exciting Latin acts to come out of New York City in many years.

And when we say that the PMG is a New York band, we mean it. For Pedrito Martínez may have been born in Havana and live in Union City, NJ, the music his band makes was crafted over years of playing several nights a week at Midtown Manhattan restaurant Guantanamera.

And the wait for the album was worth it. It conveys the energy and wide musical range of the band’s live performances with an ease that can’t be faked—from the vibrant Cuban rumba of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas’s “Lengua de Obbara” (which has guest stars Wynton Marsalis on trumpet and Matt Dillon on the spoken intro) and Martinez’s own “Conciencia” to the R&B-meets-rumba version of Robert Johnson’s classic “Travelling Riverside Blues” (with jazz-master John Scofield on guitar).

From beginning to end, The Pedrito Martínez Group is a rewarding listen—an album as full of music in every corner as the Cuban capital, with stops on Latin jazz, timba and the sounds of Yoruba and Santería ceremonies. That’s why when it’s Martínez’s turn to sing Pachito Alonso’s “La Habana,” the verses about knowing the city all too well work as a metaphor for his inside-out understanding of its music. We are walking the streets of Havana along with him and the band, we’re all smiling, and it’s a sunny day.

José Manuel Simián is the Executive Editor of Manero. He used to be a lawyer and is probably listening to Bob Dylan as you read this.