Afro-Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martinez knows his way around large stages—and musical celebrities. He’s even backed Bruce Springsteen and Elton John as part of the house band for Sting’s rainforest benefits at Carnegie Hall.

Yet he’s probably turned the most heads as leader of the Pedrito Martinez Group during a decade of New York restaurant residencies attended by the likes of Roger Waters, Eric Clapton, Wynton Marsalis, John Scofield and Paul Simon drummer Steve Gadd. The last three guested on PMG’s self-titled, Grammy-nominated 2013 debut.

“When you’ve got a residency, it’s like a showcase,” says Martinez, 42, whose group came together at the Cuban restaurant Guantanamera, jamming multiple nights per week, before starting a new residency at New York’s Meatpacking hot spot Subrosa. “Clubs are more intimate. People are closer to the group, and they connect with us right away.”

He found a similar setting at Johnny D’s Uptown, where World Music/CRASHarts brings back the Pedrito Martinez Group for two shows on Feb. 27, arranging free salsa lessons for dancers before the band’s late set. It’s clear that Martinez will miss the longtime Somerville restaurant/club that’s set to close on March 13.

“We come back with full energy, man,” he says of Johnny D’s, which he calls one of his favorite venues. “Every time we play there, it’s full of people, it’s sold out, amazing.”

It’s been an amazing journey for the Cuban native, from the streets of Havana—where he began playing music at age 11 before working professionally at 16—to top status on the Manhattan scene, as well as clubs and festivals worldwide. His international path to success started at age 25, when Martinez toured Canada with saxophonist Jane Bunnett and remained in North America, heading to New York to seek his fortune.

“The transition was like zero to 100,” Martinez says from his home in New Jersey. “I didn’t know how to speak English. I didn’t know anybody here. I didn’t have any family… As soon as I got here, I said, ‘I have to practice, man. I have to get out there and meet people and understand how this city moves.’ ”

He learned fast. For two years, Martinez played folkloric music with Orlando “Puntilla” Rios, a master of the bata drums used in Santeria religious ceremonies, which Martinez still plays. But when the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz held a competition in Afro-Latin hand drumming, Martinez grabbed first place, earning $20,000 and endorsement deals. “That opened so many doors for me,” says Martinez, who juggled gigs with several acts, from Cuban sax great Paquito D’Rivera to the Latin fusion group Yerba Buena.

Latin bands often favor the orchestral sound of a large ensemble, but the Pedrito Martinez Group settled as a four-piece. In addition to Martinez, who mixes conga and bata drums and uses a cajon box to mimic a bass drum, the band sports longtime Peruvian associate Jhair Sala on bongos and cowbell, Berklee-trained Venezuelan bassist Alvaro Benavides and Cuban keyboardist Edgar Pantoja-Aleman.

“I grew up listening to timba and modern Cuban music, with four or five horns and multiple percussion, and I would like to do the same music, with the same power, with four people,” says the charismatic Martinez, whose effervescent grooves also echo jazz, funk, rock and flamenco influences. “We all have to sing, we all have to dance. We have to make this quartet a show, not just play music.”

Martinez delivers complex crossrhythms with brisk, muscular strokes, but he also dances and sings (as an engaging tenor), skills that he developed on the streets of Cuba and holds with pride. “It’s not just about virtuosity,” he says. “It’s about when you can do many things at the same time.”

Martinez returned to Cuba to record his group’s upcoming release Havana Dreams, which will feature his three percussionist brothers as well as Ruben Blades, Angelique Kidjo and Marsalis. “The reason I got out was not political—it was about opportunity, to open my mind to the New World and learn,” Martinez says. “I try to get back to Cuba every year. I always grab new ideas and refresh my brain.”



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