Home » Stories » The nonstop life of Pedrito Martinez / The New York Times Magazine

Top 10 for Jun

The nonstop life of Pedrito Martinez / The New York Times Magazine

Bookmark and Share

Pedrito Martinez is a star without stardom - renowned, deeply in demand but not famous. A percussionist (a conguero, in fact), songwriting singer and priest of the Santeria religion, born and raised in Havana and living modestly just across the Hudson River in Union City, N.J., he works nonstop, both on his own music (the Pedrito Martinez Group has two rousing albums and a Grammy nomination) and on the music of other artists, stars with stardom: Bruce Springsteen and Elton John, Lady Gaga and Sting, stars who have enfolded him, briefly, into their constellation.

But Martinez's starriness stands apart from the development of his artistry - his discovery of music and his obsession with it, as a Cuban kid, as an adult immigrant in America, as a husband and a father who unceasingly tours and gigs and composes, rehearses and records. It has been a lot of work, obviously. But eventually, too many gigs became standing gigs - at Guantanamera, at Subrosa, at the dearly departed B.B. King's Blues Club and Grill, leaps forward from the spots where old people sat and ate at rivalrous volumes. Martinez needed love to get him through those nights, enough love not to care when a diner told a manager that the music - the music the diner had, in theory, paid to hear - was too loud. Martinez just kept going. The steadiness, the thickened skin, the constant work? It led to more work. It fortified mastery. It amounted to a reputation for being, in part, what you'd call a musician's musician.

From an armchair in his living room, Martinez recalled being asked to play with Sting for a benefit show for indigenous peoples. "I remember the rehearsal. Sting told me, ‘Brother Pedro, I want you to get big,' and when he said that, I was kind of confused. What do you mean you want me to get big? ‘I want you to grab those two tambourines and go like this.' " Martinez demonstrated, waving his arms over his head as if he were guiding an airplane to its gate. Here Martinez was, surrounded by a top-of-the-line spread of instruments - timbales, three congas, Batá drums, cajón, djembe - and all Sting needed him to do was shake the tambourines.

"I made the biggest money of my life," Martinez said, as real wonder came over his face. "To become famous or to make the big money, it's not about how great you are. It's not how talented you are. It's just to be there at the right time, have the right people to connect you with the right people." Martinez is saying he has been lucky. That benefit show "made me think that a lot of people out there, that have been sacrificing their life, playing, starting hard, consistently, and they have no opportunities like the opportunities I've been having."

Martinez playing a Batá drum from Cuba at a Santeria ceremony in Brooklyn. He is a Santeria priest. Participants taking turns saluting deities while Martinez sings and chants. The Santeria ceremonies can sometimes last four or five hours. 

In other words, Martinez has made it, but he doesn't quite want to have it too made. He enjoys the routine of his domestic life. (We had to stop talking because he was reminded, by his wife of 20 years, that it was time to pick up his daughter from school.) His collaborative philosophy is steeped in modesty. "The most important thing is to know how to be a soldier," he said. "How to have the discipline to respect other people's music and to play simple."

You wouldn't necessarily know about that simplicity at one of his own shows. For his current, standing, two-set gig at Ginny's Supper Club - the performance cellar at Red Rooster, the Harlem soul-food spot - he played the congas in the same clothes that he wore to open his front door two days before: porkpie hat, long-sleeve tunic, jeans (black, black, black) and gilt eyewear. He was all electricity, charisma, exuberance, astonishing skill and flirtation, with the receptive dudes in his band and the diners charmed into dancing.

When he's playing the salsa and Afro-Cuban rhythms that long ago seduced him, he does it with this solar smile. It's not the black entertainer's rictus of servitude that's been gumming up the ecstasy of live performance in this country for centuries. It's involuntarily true. He means it. To meet Martinez and to see him work is to appreciate the slim odds of stardom's lottery. But it's also to understand confidence, cool and self-belief, that the work is for something, something strong and thrilling. The world might not know that Martinez is a star. That's O.K. He knows.

See Martinez at Industry City, in Brooklyn, on June 16 at 2 p.m.

Photographs by Brenda Ann Kenneally        Video by Sasha Arutyunova