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February 12, 2022
Pedrito Martinez fires up Harlem with Afro-Cuban rumba
Pedrito Martinez at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse. Credit: Marc Millman.

Living in Harlem definitely has its benefits. Recently, it meant that I could walk a few blocks from my apartment to the small but significant cultural treasure that is the Harlem Stage Gatehouse, spend a couple hours jiving with Pedrito Martinez and his Afro-Cuban band, then walk home under the stars afterward, rumba rhythms still bouncing in my head. All in all, a pretty perfect evening.

A program note explains that Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martinez used to sit for hours in his hometown of Havana watching the "rumberos" drumming, singing, and dancing in the park across from his house. 30 or so years later, we can all be thankful he paid such close attention. From his childhood fascination emerged not just a love of music, but an eclectic, high-energy style inspired by the African-derived rumba tradition. Rumba Con Fundamento, Martinez's latest show co-presented by Harlem Stage and the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI), is a mashup of lively, get-up-and-dance compositions by Martinez and his band members, all centered around the percussionist's seemingly enchanted half-circle of congas, cymbals, and snare drum.

Anytime I experience something new, it opens my mind a little wider, but to experience Pedrito Martinez at the drums is to realize a whole new world of percussion playing. His fluid rhythms and seemingly effortless thrumming are hypnotic, but at the same time, stunning. His hands slide, roll, and beat in ways I didn't know were possible (and still wouldn't believe if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes), and with the all-or-nothing way he plays, it's a wonder he has any hands left at all by the time the night is over.

While Martinez is undoubtedly the star, he's backed by a quartet of equally talented performers. Isaac Delgado, Jr. performs wonders on a pair of keyboards; Xito Lovell is a mood on the trombone; Sebastian Natal is rock-solid on bass; and Manuel Marquez gives Martinez a run for his money as the other percussionist, providing a heavy but healthy dose of jazzily syncopated rhythms.

It's all fun and games until halfway through the second or third song, when, without warning, Afro-Cuban dancers Kevin Perez and Liethis Hechevarria snake their way out from behind the curtain and emerge in full, glorious motion. In bright, sparkling clothing, their joyous, jaw-dropping movements give visible form to Martinez's colorful melodies and rhythms. Before long, the whole audience is on its feet.

It's just that kind of an event. If you don't have fun watching Martinez play, sing, and occasionally get up and dance, you probably won't have fun anywhere. With a visionary percussionist, innovative band, and indefatigable dancers, Rumba Con Fundamento is a foot-stomping, heart-pounding, not-to-be-missed Afro-Cuban party in the heart of Harlem.

For details on more shows at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse, see the link below:

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Written by: Erin Kahn
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