“Kings of This Music”: From Camarón de la Isla to Pedrito Martínez

When Pedrito Martínez sings for Yemayá—as he did at the beginning of his show in Boston last week—the crossroads open: oceanic crossroads, lived crossroads, crossroads of transformation, crossroads rooted in Cayo Hueso, Havana, where Pedrito grew up, Elegguá’s crossroads where choices are made, destinies are reversed, and intention translates into meaning. A man seated in the back of Villa Victoria Center for the Arts, feeling the space change with the music, called out in recognition, “Maferefún la Ocha!” Pedrito’s story filled the room.

Told in a potent recent podcast, an important turn in Pedrito’s musical career took place around the age of 15 in his neighborhood of Cayo Hueso, an important center of Afro-Cuban culture in Havana. Home to Callejón de Jamel, where the great rumberos of Havana gather to play and dance alongside Salvador Bueno’s murals each Sunday, Cayo Hueso is also a thriving Lukumí religious community.

The transition began at an Orisha ceremony, Pedrito recalls. Dozens gathered in a small home to pay homage to their deities. The drummers were ready. The head of the ceremony was ready. But the singer showed no sign of arrival. Román Díaz, who later became Pedrito’s godfather in the Lukumí religion, waited as long as he could before asking the drummers if they knew of anyone in the neighborhood who could sing. “The guy across the street, they said,” Pedrito shared during the podcast, speaking of himself, “but Román said, ‘no, no, he’s too young, he couldn’t be counted on.’ So he kept looking but nobody was available. And so they got me to cross the street.”

That was the first time Pedrito sang at a ceremony for the Orishas. “Román told me, ‘you sang and you grabbed my heart.’” From that moment on, Pedrito’s training in singing and drumming for the Orishas took on a new direction. He was initiated into the Lukumí religion, became a Babalawo, and maintained his practice in Abakuá, the secret, all-male secret society whose origins are traced to Cross River in what is now Nigeria.

Pedrito had first performed as a percussionist at the age of 16 in García Lorca theatre (a theatre named after Federico García Lorca, author of the poem Leyenda del Tiempo) but his ability to call down the Orishas—a faculty of duende—via song led to collaborations with the top Rumba groups in Cuba, including Muñequitos de Matanzes, Tata Güines, and a long period with Yoruba Andabo. He played and studied with Pancho Quinto, Román Díaz’s godfather and virtusoso percussionist, as well as the great Lázaro Ros. His work with the rumberos and religious drummers and singers of Cuba paved the way for his arrival in New York. In 2013 he performed with Buika on the album “La Noche Más Larga” and in the same year he released “Rumba de la Isla,” an album he and his godfather recorded in honor of the great Flamenco legend, Camarón de la Isla. It is an album that reaches an expressive climax with the classic theme, “Volando Voy,” from one of the great albums of all time, Leyenda del Tiempo, a poem written by García Lorca. Just before a triumphant return to Cuba and the recording of

There are numerous other albums and collaborations that deserve mentioning but allow me to fast forward to October 30th, 2016. As fast as pieces of Pedrito’s story filled the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts in Boston triggering a call from the audience, so too do pieces of a WorldMusic/CRASHarts Boston story. It is now about 8:00 PM at Berklee Performance Center and Tomatito—the legendary guitarist who played with Camarón de la Isla for the last 18 years of Camarón’s life—is playing.

He chooses the song “Leyenda del Tiempo” to introduce his son to Boston and to a world stage. It was a gesture of passing the torch to the next generation that I covered in the concert review. And it was also a gesture at a range of connections between Cuban Rumba rooted in Afro-Cuban religions and the Flamenco tradition.

Beginning with the Flamenco Festival in March of 2016, Buika’s May 2016 performance, and these two recent performances by Tomatito and Pedrito Martínez, World Music/CRASHarts in Boston has been curating an important series of transatlantic cultural dialogues and a shared African and Roma diaspora musical legacy. They have been telling the tale of connections and celebrating the journey of Flamenco and Cuban Rumba, back and forth, across the Atlantic.

One of those watery crossroads that opens when Pedrito sings is the same territory that WorldMusic has been exploring and making available to the public, as if the musical programming were itself a sub-text written in code. WorldMusic’s next program, Boubacar Traoré, will continue. Follow the winds ‘back’ to Mali:

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