Pedrito Martinez gets the crowd dancing

On Wednesday, April 18, Lawrence welcomed the Pedrito Martinez Group as part of its World Music Series. The four-piece group, headed by Cuban-born percussionist and vocalist Pedrito Martinez, put on an incredible show that featured traditional Afro-Cuban folk music heavily influenced by Latin and jazz styles. Pedrito and his band took the stage in the Esch Hurvis Studio to the sound of raucous applause from a nearly-full house. The crowd’s enthusiasm only grew as the concert progressed.

Pedrito, along with another group member, kept the beat on hand drums of various shapes and sizes. Their bass player supplied steady grooves throughout, often moving between subtle jazzy lines and others more reminiscent of modern Latin dance music. The piano player was equally flexible, often breaking into impressive solos that seemed to defy genre but fit perfectly with the aesthetic of the group as a whole.

Pedrito’s voice was booming and commanding yet soulful. Each poignant phrase was usually followed by a response sung in a more subdued harmony by the other members of the group, creating an interesting contrast. Most songs were significantly lengthier than the dance staple you might hear on the radio, taking their time to develop and explore many different musical ideas. They shifted constantly between lyrical verses, instrumental grooves, rhythmic variations, drum and piano solos, refrains and more, while always maintaining an uplifting and vibrant energy.

Adding to this energy was Pedrito’s effortless and engaging stage presence. He addressed the crowd in a combination of Spanish and English, making playful remarks and encouraging them to clap their hands and move along to the music. His appeals were successful – it didn’t take long for a sizeable crowd to start dancing near the stage. Much to the chagrin of the people sitting in the first few rows, they remained for the entire show, even forming an impromptu conga line at least 50-strong at one point. During one tune, Pedrito even left the stage to join the crowd, leading them in a traditional dance.

The climax of the show was undoubtedly Pedrito’s solo piece. He began with some acapella singing, which somehow managed to be even more breathtaking than the previous pieces. This eventually gave way to an extended hand drum solo. The crowd was silent as they observed the spectacle. Pedrito’s hands were a blur as he pulled off complex, frenzied rhythmic figures at machine-gun speeds. Then, he slowed to a creep before gradually accelerating until his hands were moving at a speed that appeared to defy the laws of physics.

After a few more selections that had half of the crowd dancing or moving to the music in some way, the concert came to an end. However, the ceaseless cheers of the crowd prompted Pedrito and his group to return to the stage for an uproarious encore during which each group member exchanged instruments with another. Even with Pedrito on bass and the bass player on the drums, they still sounded great – a real testament to their musical mastery, and a memorable conclusion to a concert that surely left all in attendance in a good mood.

Jay MacKenzie