Friday, April 26, 2019

A Conversation with Eduardo Vilaro, Artistic Director of Ballet Hispánico

Línea Recta  © Paula Lobo, courtesy Ballet Hispánico
Ballet Hispánico, that venerable and resilient Big Apple cultural institution, has spent nearly half a century empowering diversity in a country that, despite growing ever more diverse, clings desperately to its dying dominant culture.  The company, last seen in Madison in 2010, appears at Overture Hall on Thursday, May 9.
Ballet Hispánico was founded in 1970 by Tina Ramírez, the Venezuelan-born, New York-raised daughter of a Mexican bullfighter and a Puerto Rican teacher. When she retired, a decade ago, the artistic directorship was taken over by Eduardo Vilaro, who left his native Havana for New York in 1969, when he was six. Vilaro grew up to become a principal dancer with the company before moving on to found and direct Chicago’s wonderful, and, alas, now defunct, Luna Negra Dance Theater; his return to Ballet Hispánico, in 2010, brought his career full circle.
Ballet Hispánico came to Madison that year with a worn-out repertory of older works by non-Latin male choreographers working – directly or indirectly – with Latin themes, though set, fortunately, on a largely Latinx company.  Today, a decade into its rebirth under Vilaro’s direction, the company’s caught up with the challenges of the twenty-first century.

CulturalOyster: When you were still at Luna Negra, you told me once that “When we come to the States we fuse, we change.  I’m not 100% Cuban any more.  In Cuba they tell me ‘tu no eres cubano.’  I’m like damn, who are we in this country?  Can we celebrate who we’re becoming? 
That was 2008, so 11 years ago; it was a different company, a different time, and the issues of immigration, cultural fusion, and identity have become much more visible and emotionally charged since then. I think you’re basically still coming from that same place – celebrating fusion – but how has your thinking on identity and dance evolved over the last decade? 

Vilaro: You know, yes, I still believe we become something else.  We live as a hybrid. This nation is a hybrd nation; it is not, contrary to popular belief, a white nation, although that’s the structure that’s been allowed to play out.  So I’m very interested in exploring cultural intersectionality. Some important cultural institutions [like Ballet Hispánico] were born between the ‘50s and ‘70s to say “I’m here, I belong.”  And now it feels like we’ve come to another moment, another catalyst to make that claim and update it: “Not only do I belong, but I’m part of the fabric, and I’m a leader in this fabric.” 
It’s so important to make works that celebrate our Latinx lives.  We are also waking up to the fact that the cultures in our own countries of origin are facing issues of nationalism and supremacy versus diversity and acceptance of race, color, gender.  So [directing Ballet Hispánico] is a warm, exciting, difficult, full-of-challenges opportunity and I feel that if I don’t take the bull by the horns we’re going to get further behind.

CulturalOyster: The choreographic idiom of Ballet Hispánico is polyglot, too –how do your dancers train?

Vilaro: It’s funny – this is going to be another hybrid discussion.  I have dancers trained classically and I enjoy a classical line or the ability to get as close to classical as we can but our dancers are hybrid themselves in terms of their training.  One guy trained in Havana with Ballet Nacional but also grew up as an Afrocuban learning Yoruba dances – and that changes the way you approach the movement quality and how it translates in your body.  We have a young man from Tampa with ballet training and a tap and hip-hop background.  The ladies all have very classical backgrounds, but some of them come from Juilliard so they bring a deep contemporary mixture, and that’s perfect for our company because we’re showing fusion. The hybridization, for us, is richer, it makes for stronger utilization of the folk forms a choreographer might want to expose.  You can’t do that with pure classicism – it looks forced, not real.

CulturalOyster: During your first year as artistic director of Ballet Hispánico the touring program was a celebration of the company’s 40-year history.  Only one work by a Latin choreographer – Pedro Ruíz’s (2000) “Club Havana” -- was on the bill.  The program looks a lot different this time.  From the press kit, it looks like all of the choreographers you’re working with now have direct Latin heritage. How has that changed the company, from the one you inherited to the one you’ve been leading for almost a decade now?

Vilaro: What we’re bringing to Madison is our all Latina program – three works, by three women – Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Michelle Manzanales, and Tania Pérez-Salas.  It represents the evolution of my curatorial tenure at Ballet Hispánico. When you first come in you have to work with what you have. It’s taken the decade I’ve been artistic director to scope out and develop the right kinds of artists and works for my vision. I think the program you’re seeing is the actualization of that vision in its totality.  When I first came in to take over the range from a powerful Latina founder who had a very different immigrant experience than I did, I had to start shaking off some of the things from the past to help the organization walk into exactly this moment. And it’s excellent – it couldn’t have happened more gracefully.  We’re now finding and nurturing young Latinx dancers and choreographers.  The idiom is clearer.  You’ll see work that’s clearly about fusion.  López Ochoa’s “Linea Recta” has some derivatives of flamenco, but contemporizes it and brings it forward – there’s partnering, the costuming is deconstructed, and there’s an electricity that shows the original folk form in a new way. It  answers the question ‘Who is the fused flamenco artist?’ – and that’s what this company can do.
The Manzanales piece, “Brazos Abiertos,” is a true homage to who we are as immigrants – how we feel doing our identity mambo as we go back and forth.  ‘Who am I and how does that affect my identity as a woman?’  As a company we reflect that and make statements of advocacy and invite the audience into the conversation. 
Pérez-Salas is still living and working in Mexico City, and she’s saying ‘My culture doesn’t define me.’ Her piece, “Catorce Dieciséis,” is the least culturally accessible – it’s about ‘I am mexicana and that means my piece is mexicana.  I wanted to meditate on the mathematical concept of pi and that’s what I did.’
The piece is visually stunning.  As artistic director I need to show that we don’t just look a certain way or dance a certain way.  I wanted to end the program with this piece because I want Ballet Hispánico to empower the audience to think differently about codifying culture.

CulturalOyster: What about your own work?  I’ve always been a fan of your choreography – you did a piece for Luna Negra that the company performed here in 2008 – a piece with deep Cuban sensibilities set to Sephardic music, “Deshár Alhát,” that’s still one of my all time favorites.  I hope you’ll bring some of your work next time!

Vilaro: Thank you for that!  I just created a new work and I’m trying to bring back my choreography.  It’s hard finding time when you’re taking a different kind of leadership role – it impinges on my artistic work, but there aren’t a lot of our voices out there and we all need to step up.

CulturalOyster: Eduardo, is there anything else you want to mention?

Vilaro: I guess I’ll just mention that in January, 2020, we start the celebration of our fiftieth year.  It’s a milestone – and it’s interesting that we’re not alone. The other companies that made a stand around the time of the cultural wars of the ‘60s are also celebrating.  Dance Theatre of Harlem is also 50, and the Ailey company just celebrated 60 years.  But there aren’t a lot of Latinx organizations turning 50 here in the US.  I’m honored to have this opportunity.

                              __________________________  interview by SK

Thursday, April 11, 2019

A Conversation with Victor Wooten

The last time we saw legendary bass player Victor Wooten in Madison it was March, 2012, on Bela Fleck and the Original Flecktones’ knock-it-outta-the-park farewell tour show at the Wisconsin Union Theater (now Shannon Hall). As I wrote about it then, Wooten’s funky, funky bass mirrored the collective heartbeat of both the band and the cheering, full-house crowd. The Flecktones were one of the greatest, most musical, most genuine – and generous – bands ever, making music with the kind of unfettered joy I usually associate only with my dog. Wooten is everything the Flecktones were on his own, and he brings all of that delight to getting people – top-shelf pros, passionate beginners, and everything in between – to make their own music. You’ll see what I mean when he takes the stage at Shannon Hall on Thursday, April 18, with a very different kind of show – the Wooten Woods Experience Tour.
Wooten’s got a very Zen philosophy of music that stems from his remarkable background; he’s the youngest of five brothers, including Roy “Futureman” Wooten, also an Original Flecktone. As the story goes, the brothers started a band when they were just young kids, but they lacked a bass player. So when Wooten was two, his oldest brother, Regi, put a toy guitar, missing the two top strings, into his hands, and that was that. Wooten learned to play bass the way most babies learn their first language, and I leave you to his TED talk for more on that.

The way he learned (if you watched the TED talk, above, you already know this) is the way he teaches. He’s on faculty at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, but most importantly this year marks the twentieth anniversary of his first holistic, interactive music and nature camp and the tenth of the founding of Wooten Woods, a retreat for musicians that he and his wife own on the Duck River west of Nashville. There, joined by a faculty of prominent players including his brothers and a slate of guest artists to die for, Wooten runs a variety of summer music camps so enticing I’m ready to go myself.
The Wooten Woods Experience Tour brings a taste of the place to Shannon Hall. I got to ask Wooten about it on the phone last week.

CulturalOyster: Thanks so much for taking my call. Last time you were in Madison was during the Flecktones’ farewell tour, so it’s been a while since we’ve heard you live. And this is a very different kind of concert. What should the audience expect from the Wooten Woods Experience tour?

Wooten: Yeah, it’ll be very different from a Flecktones show, except you’ll still experience a high level of musicianship and you’ll be able to tell we’re having fun onstage. A couple of my brothers are on this tour – not Roy “Futureman,” but Regi on guitar and Joseph on keyboards – plus my quartet, some teachers from the camp, and five or six students. We’ll perform together and showcase the students. We’ll also address the audience and show them some of our approach to teaching music, and how we make it easy for everyone. We’ll include the audience, too – we want to give people a taste of who we are and what we do.

CulturalOyster: Let’s move on to you. These days everyone wants to talk about your philosophy of music and teaching, and we’ll get there in a second – but musically you sort of defy description, and I want to take a stab at it. You’re a master of many styles and techniques, and whatever you call the style you’re playing at any given time – is it jazz, is it funk, is it fusion, is it funky bluegrass? – doesn’t matter. But whatever you play, it’s inevitably funky, it’s always spontaneous, unselfconscious – there’s a “dance like nobody’s watching” spirit – and it never feels aggressive or mean-spirited in the way that some rock and especially post-bop jazz – like, say, to use another bass player, Charlie Mingus – can feel. Did I get any of that right?

Wooten: Sure, absolutely. There’s enough mean spirit in the world. I don’t want to add to that. I will say this – my style can be aggressive, I can hit the bass pretty hard, but from experiencing the whole picture you know my attitude is not aggressive in a mean-spirited way. I understand what the black jazz musicians of the ‘60s were going through, I really do, but I’m not living that, so I don’t express myself that way.

CulturalOyster: You’ve gotten a lot of Grammys, a lot of accolades – but what stands out most in your lifelong history in music, the way you see it?

Wooten: Wow, that’s a good question – a big thing I get a lot of fulfillment from and I’m very prod of is running my music camps. I have four kids. My whole attitude – what drives me – has changed. It’s not about what I can do but more about helping people find out what they want and to succeed at what they’re doing. It’s more the teacher / parent / mentor role than the performer role and I feel fulfilled every time I get to teach and share – I love it.

CulturalOyster: As a teacher, you seem pretty fearless. You’ve gone where no musician has gone before, at least not in public – deep into the zen proposition that music is something everyone carries within and can access. You’ve talked about how you were born into a band, and learned music the way we all learn our first language – but how do you get people who weren’t born with a toy bass in their hand to access that natural musicality?

Wooten: By convincing them that they don’t have to do it right. That’s the problem – you’re learning that if you play wrong they slap your hand, and no child wants that. But I’ve been able to get people to play their best literally by asking them to play their worst. I get students at Berklee – they’re trying so hard to sound good playing jazz and they do sound good, but there’s no emotion at all. It’s like listening to a politician speak. So I’ll say that was good, now let’s have a contest to see who can play the worst – and all of a sudden you can feel the joy and emotion. Finally the listener feels something. It’s really amazing to witness. That spirit gets lost a lot of times because of the way we learn and what we’re told to learn. We’re copying somebody else’s lifestyle. Mingus and the musicians of his generation were different because they played the way they lived, but usually we’re not taught to play like that. We’re taught that we have to learn Chopin and Bach – someone else’s language. But in speaking, your first words are your own – which is why you have your own voice. You speak just like you. The process is easy and you have no trouble doing it.

CulturalOyster: I’ve been critical of formal jazz programs in universities because of that – because blues and jazz didn’t come out of the academy and academic jazz has no real soul. I’ve said I think they should kick those kids out on the streets and let ‘em learn to play the way the old jazzmen did.

Wooten: I don’t think kicking ‘em out on the street is the answer, ‘cause you wouldn’t do that to your baby child. It’s just about allowing them to express what they want to express. We don’t sit our babies in a room and tell them to practice their words. A baby doesn’t know it’s a beginner. It’s about the process of guidance, of allowing them all the freedom in the world to make mistakes. It’s the same with teaching music.

CulturalOyster: So you’re teaching music in this gentle, egalitarian way – and yet people, or at least a certain set of them, are doing their best to murder nature, and that natural musicality you say everyone has is constantly getting beaten to bits by bad parents, bad music teachers, poverty, war, drugs, charlatans in politics and elsewhere – so how do you transcend that?

Wooten: The main thing is that when I started being asked to teach during the early Flecktones years I had to figure out how to teach as well as what to teach. I’d never taught anything and I compared the way I learned to play to how everyone else seemed to be teaching and found a big disparity. I realized that although the traditional approach was good I found it very lacking because it was squeezing the individuality out of the musician until they learned someone else’s method. If they keep at it, eventually students are asked to find themselves again, but a lot of times they give up along the way. The way I learned was like learning your first language, where you never lose yourself and neither do you lose interest – you never say “man, I’m giving up on English,” and quit.

CulturalOyster: Are students surprised when they first experience the way you teach?

Wooten: Yes, very surprised, which is why I wrote my novel, “The Music Lesson.” For years my students were asking for the information I was giving them in book form and for years I resisted, until the idea hit to write a story and put the instruction into it. But yes, it surprises people all the time.

CulturalOyster: When you do your Wooten Woods shows you sometimes ask people who aren’t musicians to get up onstage with you. Is it terrifying when you ask people with no formal training to just play?

Wooten: Oh yes, most people are terrified the first time. They’ll get up onstage and don’t know where they’re going or what they’re doing. If you come to our show you’ll probably see it. Every time I’ve done this I’ll ask who in the audience has never played an instrument before and we’ll pull someone up onstage and I’ll hand them a bass or a guitar with no instructions. And every time, they’ll put the strap around their neck and stand there looking like a professional, so I always point that out to the audience – “look, this is not a beginner...”

CulturalOyster: When you do that can they just play, sort of like autonomic writing?

Wooten: Of course not correctly, but is it correct emotion? Yes. A baby can speak, but it’s not correct so people discount it. The same thing happens with bass or guitar – people discount it until it complies with the rules and they can understand it. But I’ll have you look at that one different way. Let’s say a ten-year old comes to take piano lessons. Here’s what most teachers will do. They’ll treat that ten-year old as a beginner, which is normal – but if you think about it, that child has been listening to music for almost eleven years already. If a song comes on the radio, whether it’s Michael Jackson or Taylor Swift, that ten-year old will know that song better and faster than the teacher will. They’ll know the lyrics and likely sing it in the right key.
What the child doesn’t know is how to play the right notes on the piano. Most teachers are teaching the kid to play the instrument, where what the kid really wants is to play music. When we teach them to speak we don’t start with grammar, but that’s the process most music teachers take. That works, but it’s slower. So my process, that I learned from my brother Regi, who taught me, is to get straight to the music – we’ll get to the instrument later, ‘cause if you can make sound you’re playing rhythm and if you’re playing rhythm you’re playing music – and we’ll fill in around you and it’ll sound good. People can start playing right away, ‘cause everybody has rhythm.

CulturalOyster: But eventually you have to learn notes and chords, right?

Wooten: I’d say no. My dad loved to sing and hold a guitar and strum while he was singing and he never learned a chord. He strummed the guitar for feel. What’s right or wrong is up to the listener. Do you ever have to learn notes and chords? If you want to fit in the box that most Americans call good, then yes. But if you have a one-year old, every note she plays will sound good to you. You also have to remember that what we call good in America may not be good in another country.

CulturalOyster: But if you want to play, say, a blues, or a folk song, you have to learn how to make it sound right.

Wooten: We get there with our students, but starting there makes it hard. Learning correct English takes time – it takes years to learn to ask mom for more milk. But a baby can ask the same thing with pure emotion and the mom learns the baby’s way, and that just takes a few minutes.

CulturalOyster: How did you figure all this out?

Wooten: I figured it out because Regi never told me anything I did was wrong, and then as I became a teacher I started watching him. He’ll tell a student “that’s great, but let’s learn it another way, too.” So when I started paying attention to that, as well as having such a love for the students, I discovered that the individual way I needed to get through to a particular student would just show up on its own. My teaching is not about my teaching. I’m more invested in the student than I am in my method, and like a jazz player who has to go outside themself to play what the music is asking for, I to go outside myself to find what the student needs.

CulturalOyster: ‘Cause you’re very receptive.

Wooten: Yeah. That’s what a high-level musician is.

CulturalOyster: So – the Wooten Woods Experience Tour is short. What comes next for you?

Wooten: Bela Fleck and the Flectkones will be next – that’s all of June.

CulturalOyster: I thought that was over?

Wooten: We’re doing it again [it’s a thirtieth anniversary reunion tour, according to Google]. It’s the original lineup – Howard Levy, Futureman, Bela and me. Also, I teach every month at Berklee, so I go up to Boston. And soon it’ll be music camp season. But right now it’s all about this tour – it’s a twelve-city tour and I’m really looking forward to it. We have some people who’ve never toured before – students of all different ages and playing levels. I want the audience to see a wide variety of what we do and to show you that you don’t have to be a virtuoso to play great music.

  _____________   interview by SK. Parts have been slightly edited for clarity.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Pedrito Martínez: Twenty-First Century Rumbero

Pedrito Martínez is the new face of an old Cuban tradition. His guarapachangueo – an open, heavily improvisational, polyrhythmic rumba that evolved from guaguancó, one of three twentieth-century rumba styles – is steeped in the multicultural cross-currents of New York, where he’s lived for twenty-two years. But Martínez’s roots lie deep in the Cayo Hueso secction of Centro Habana, the cradle of modern rumba. Martínez made his Madison debut at Overture’s Capitol Theater in February, 2015. Next week, on March 27, he returns – this time to the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Play Circle.  It’s a small venue for such a major musician, but that gives us an intimate, almost club-like opportunity to hear Martínez’s quartet, and that’s gotta be good. 
Martinez is a wondrous percussionist who’s taken the States by storm. Two years after coming to the States he won top honors in the Thelonious Monk Institute Afro-Latin hand percussion competition, and he’s reaped many more medals since. He’s both classic rumba vocalist and surprising innovator. His instruments of choice are tumbadoras (congas) and the hourglass-shaped, double-headed batá – for performace, a secular version of the sacred drum used to call up the Efik spirits of Afro-Cuban Abakuá. 
When he first came to Madison he had one album out – Grammy-nominated The Pedrito Martínez Group (Mótema Music, 2013).  Now he has two more: Habana Dreams (Mótema Music, 2016) and Duologue, a soulful improvisation on themes both island and Yuma with classically trained Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodríguez (Mack Avenue Music, 2019).  Both albums are touring right now, but it’s the Habana Dreams group (minus the star-studded list of guest artists featured on the album) that’s coming to the Play Circle. 
I caught up with Martínez by phone on a bitter early February day.

CulturalOyster: When I interviewed you in 2015 you told me your music is Afro-Cuban “con mucho de Nueva York,” but that at heart you’re a folkloric musician, a rumbero from the marginal streets of Cayo Hueso.  When you played here that year you’d been in New York eighteen years, your group had a single, eponymous album out, and you were playing guarapachangueo bastante neoyorkizao, if there is such a word.  I’ve only heard a little of Duologue so far, but the other new record – Habana Dreams – is definitely more Cuba than New York, maybe because it was recorded at Egrem.  Do you see it that way? 

Martínez: Definitely. The fact that we recorded it in Cuba makes it completely different in flavor.  The folklore is more present and direct, very clear.  It was a big inspiration to be in the studio with my brothers and friends I haven’t seen for a long time.  It was a very emotional recording.  And it was a dream come true to have [master Cuban percussionist] Román Díaz, who was my inspiration growing up, and Isaac Delgado, and Wynton Marsalis, Angelique Kidjo, and Telmary Díaz guesting in the studio with us. Ruben Blades was there for one track, too.  He was amazing. And Edgar Pantoja [Martínez’s former pianist] did two tremendous arrangements for that album. It was great. That record is definitely better than the first one.

CulturalOyster: Almost all the best Cuban musicians are expats now, but Cuba is so beautiful – Havana is so beautiful – after that trip didn’t you want to go back and live there?

Martínez: You know, I know the US more than Cuba, I’ve been here so many years.  It’s kinda weird, every time I go to Cuba I feel very emotional and sad that I don’t live there but my family is here now and my daughter was born here and all the recognition I’ve had as a musician has come from the US.  In Cuba nobody knew who Pedrito was until Pedrito got out of Cuba.  All the awards I’ve been getting here – I owe a lot to the US.  Every time I go to Cuba I absorb the energy – it’s a blood transfusion, and I continue with that force of nature, trying to do new music and use new ideas I bring from Cuba. But I belong to both, fifty-fifty.
I’ve learned a lot from the US.  I’ve been on so many records and collaborated with so many great musicians.  The Thelonious Monk award opened so many doors for me. In 2014 and 2018 I got best jazz percussion player of the year awards.  And in 2014 I got the Sphinx Medal of Excellence [Sphinx is an organization dedicated to supporting the power of diversity in the arts].  I was never going to have that in Cuba, and I was never going to play with Paul Simon, with Bruce Springsteen – none of that ever would have happened. I thank Cuba for the many things it gave me, the knowledge I have of folkloric music from the island – and thanks to that I’ve had all these opportunities outside of Cuba.  Maybe in the future I can go back there to live, but not at this point.
But I just came back from there a week ago – I played at the Jazz Plaza Festival with Harold López-Nussa and others, it was a tribute to Tata Güines, who I played with in Cuba for three years – he was one of my icons, one of the greatest congueros who ever lived – so that was amazing.  I’m going more often to play music there now, but I’d like to go soon and play for the public with my own group.

CulturalOyster: Juan de Marcos once told me that you come straight from the source, and that you will conserve rumba for the future. And in one of the videos on your website – the one called “Havana Cultura” [it’s at the top of this post] you say that in your youth you were seen on the island as a rumbero, not as a musician – but that now rumba is in style.  What was the personal journey you had to take to love the rumbero that you are?

Martínez: It was a long way to go.  Rumba was a way to live in Cuba when I was young.  I discovered that I love Cuban folkloric music more than anything.  Unfortunately, because of the economic and political and social situation then, being a folkloric musician wasn’t great – there weren’t as many opportunities as there are now. But I learned from the real ones, and that’s essential to the knowledge I have now as rumbero, as batalero.  A mission I have now is to pass along that spirituality and knowledge – to pass along the legacy of all the rumberos who’ve passed away – to keep alive the African diaspora.  In every record I try to incorporate Yoruba chants and play some of the rumba patterns I learned when I was little.
I’m still learning and it’s a long way to go, to inject this culture into the new generation – but I want to make sure they know this is a beautiful culture that can give them so many alternatives.  People used to think that because I didn’t go to music school I wasn’t going to be an amazing musician or a great composer or singer, but the opposite is true – in Cuba if you go to music school they teach you classical. If you want to learn modern styles like timba, or the folkloric styles, you need to go to the street, and my school was the street.  I’m very happy about that.

CulturalOyster: That same video reveals the Abakuá in you, the babalao, the echoes left by the Muñequitos de Matanzas and all the other great rumberos of a now-gone era.  But rumba has always been open to new influences, that’s how guarapachangueo came about. You aren’t a young musician any more – you’re a lauded master of Afro-Cuban percussion.  So tell me, what’s the future – where is rumba going now, entering the third decade of the twenty-first century?  This is a musical question but also a social one – some of the songs you wrote for Habana Dreams have very socially conscious lyrics.

Martínez: I’m extremely happy that rumba is at such an amazing level right now.  People recognize it all over the world.  Everybody wants to be a rumbero, which is something that’s never happened before. When I lived in Cuba being a rumbero was something marginal.  No one wanted to be a rumbero.  But now in any kind of music people want to incorporate some rumba.  We need to continue innovating, but we cannot lose the identity of old-school rumba – we can’t lose what all the great rumberos did for us.  We’re students, we’re just contiuing the history book they put on the table for us to use, to keep building on, to keep it alive.  I’m not doing anything new.  I’m just continuing to build on all the ideas they had for us.

CulturalOyster: What’s been the highlight of your musical career, to date?

Martínez: When I was young and in Cuba I used to listen to Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John – and some years ago after I moved to the States I was part of a fundraiser Elton John does for the AIDS Foundation. I played that event three times. They always invite big stars – Lady Gaga was there once when I was invited, and Springsteen was there and asked me to do two albums with him, and then I played with Paul Simon twice at Lincoln Center.  That’s a big deal for a rumbero from the middle of Havana. It’s insane.  It’s a big step.

CulturalOyster: Last question – who’s coming with you this time?  It looks like the singer and percussionist Jhair Sala, who was with you last time, is on the bill – he’s Peruvian, right?

Martínez: Yes.  He’s been with us for over fifteen years. The bass player who’s coming this time is new for me, though – Sebastian Natal, from Uruguay.  He’s a virtuoso – a great singer and a unique human being. I really love this band.  I’m not saying I didn’t love the previous one, but this one is very special, and everyone’s very humble and down to earth. 
            Our keyboardist is Isaac Delgado – junior, that is, not the timbero who started NG la banda. He was playing with his dad but he decided to come to New York and coincidently my former pianist was leaving, so he’s been with us a year – he sings just like his father. We were together in Harlem just last night and Isaac senior was there, singing with us.

CulturalOyster: Pedrito, gracias.  Aquí te esperamos. 
_________________ interview by SK. Text has been slightly edited for clarity.