The Brotherhood of Alfredo Rodríguez and Pedrito Martinez

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Alfredo Rodríguez and Pedrito Martinez perform at New York’s SubCulture during Winter Jazzfest in January.

(Photo: Jonathan Chimene)

On Jan. 5—four days after the 60th anniversary of the revolution in Cuba—two sons of that island nation, Alfredo Rodríguez and Pedrito Martinez, found themselves fiddling with wires onstage as an eager audience awaited their set at the Greenwich Village club Subculture.

Performing as a duo in support of their new album, Duologue (Mack Avenue), the pianist and percussionist were setting up amid the Winter Jazzfest half-marathon, a typically crowded, sometimes hectic event. Nonetheless, the overflow audience at the subterranean nightspot grew restless as the delay dragged on, pushing back the set’s opening 40 minutes until nearly midnight.

But Rodríguez and Martinez took it all in stride. Both had traveled far—geographically, culturally, personally—to establish themselves as artists in and citizens of the United States. A few onstage glitches were nothing compared with the complexities of living in—and leaving—their homeland.

“We’re coming from Cuba, where everything is a mess,” Rodríguez half-joked in a phone call a week later.

The set, it turned out, was anything but a mess. By the time the two were ready to play, the crowd was more than primed. And the musicians did not disappoint, delivering a dazzling display that drew on influences from American pop to Nigerian Afrobeat to French modernism—all informed by the Cuban experience central to their lives.

While both musicians are from Havana, they hail from different worlds. Rodríguez, 33, is the son of a prominent balladeer and the product of classical conservatories. Martinez, 45, is a Santería priest who honed his craft on the streets.

But cultural intermingling in Cuba’s capital city is hardly unknown and, though they never crossed paths there, they rapidly fostered a simpatico relationship when they met in the U.S. Each sat in with the other’s band, they recorded together on Rodríguez’s 2014 album, The Invasion Parade (Mack Avenue), and in 2017, booked themselves as a duo at St. Louis’ Jazz at the Bistro.

“That was when everything started happening,” Rodríguez said, relaxing with Martinez at their hotel before the Jazzfest gig. Martinez added: “We said, ‘Man, let’s take this serious.’”

That determination has found vivid and varied expression. At its most expansive, it has infused compositions like “Yemayá,” which lit sparks in a small-group version on Rodríguez’s 2016 album, Tocororo (Mack Avenue), but exploded at Jazzfest, where the duo format increased exponentially the possibilities for patterned interplay. As the two musicians played off each other, the tension waxed, waned and waxed again, before they segued into sprawling solo turns. Martinez, commanding his congas, cajon, hi-hat and cymbals, fashioned a tapestry of spiraling polyrhythms; Rodríguez, on acoustic piano, wove lyrical intimations of Debussy into the Afro-Cuban sonic fabric. The performance prompted multiple ovations.

More concise, but equally well received, was “Duologue”—an artfully organized mélange of disparate melodies attached to shifting Afrobeat, funk and timba rhythms. Dispatched in fewer than three minutes, the tune, which grew out of a spontaneous colloquy between Rodríguez and Martinez, was executed with precision in a pointillistic style.

So, too, was “Thriller.” Buoyed by a sharply punctuated timba beat and sprinkled with judiciously placed references to Michael Jackson’s landmark recording, its debt to the larger Cuban culture explicitly was expressed in a middle section built on the type of comparsa one might hear during Carnival. By tune’s end, the crowd was in party mode—making clear why it’s become a signature for Rodríguez, and now the duo.

The emergence of “Thriller” as a duo mainstay—it’s one of 11 tunes on the new album—is no accident. The Rod Temperton piece became part of Rodríguez’s songbook after consultation with Quincy Jones, who produced Jackson’s version. Jones has become Rodríguez’s champion and a producer of his albums, including Duologue.

Jones became aware of Rodríguez when he was playing solo at the 2006 Montreux Jazz Festival. Permitted by the Cuban government to appear among a group of young musicians at the festival, he performed Cole Porter’s “I Love You” so well that, after meeting Jones at an invitation-only get-together at the mountaintop chalet of the festival founder, Claude Nobs, Jones wanted to sign him.

But, after returning home, he found that the state of political relationships between Cuba and the U.S. wouldn’t allow it: “We tried to do a record deal. He tried to bring me to the States. We couldn’t do anything. That’s why I made the difficult decision to cross the border.”

Eleven years after Martinez found refuge in the States, staying over following a tour with saxophonist Jane Bunnett, Rodríguez defected by a more circuitous route. The odyssey, which took place in January 2009, began in Mérida, Mexico, where he was performing with his father. While there, he phoned Adam Fell, of Quincy Jones Productions.

“I said, ‘I might be able to do it,’” Rodríguez recalled. “He said, ‘If you make it to the States, we’re going to sign you.’” Jones, in an email, confirmed that the offer had been made.

Rodríguez, scared and lacking knowledge of immigration law, hopped a flight from Mérida to Nuevo Laredo, a Mexican border town. From there, he planned to cross into Laredo, Texas. Instead, he was arrested by Mexican agents and placed in a detention center. The agents sought money, he said, but all he had was his musical paraphernalia and his story about his prospects with Jones. Ultimately, he won the agents’ sympathy, and was released after seven hours to continue his journey.

“They opened their hearts to me,” he recalled. “The policeman at the airport even called a taxi. He said, ‘Bring this guy to the border.’” At that point, he joined other migrants walking across the bridge to Laredo, where he was granted asylum. He then called Fell, who booked him on a series of flights to Santa Monica, California. There, he took up residence in a house with Fell.

“I was just so passionate about my dreams that I didn’t care about anything,” he said. “I just wanted to start a new life and work with Quincy Jones.”

The experience is documented in his music—most directly in 2012’s “Crossing The Border,” a slightly frenetic, vaguely dissonant work that evokes the disorientation he must have felt during the ordeal. Processing those feelings during the past decade, he’s developed an aesthetic that he positions as an argument against walls, physical and metaphorical, between nations and cultures. Discussing the aesthetic in January during a government shutdown related to a border wall proposed between the U.S. and Mexico, the argument gained special resonance.

“Everything we do in life is reflected in our music,” Rodríguez said. “We try to find a balance that talks about unity, about breaking those barriers and borders that we put into life nowadays.”

He and Martinez frequently have traversed this musical territory, most recently in Duologue. “We were very focused on having the record show who we are and where we came from,” Martinez said. “At the same time, we wanted people to feel that we live in the United States. We have absorbed the music of a lot of cultures and incorporated them into the way we play. So, the sound of the record is global, not just local.”

To be sure, the duo’s Afro-Cuban origins are at the heart of things. The album opens with a straightforward ode to Africa and closes with one to Cuba—an artifact of the sequencing that, while unintended, is telling. The opener, “Africa,” combines Yoruba chants with Nigerian Afrobeat and a plaintive appeal rendered by Martinez in Spanish: “Oye, que Africa te quiero cantar” (“Hey, Africa, I want to sing to you”). The album closer wistfully issues its own assertion: “Yo Volveré” (“I Will Return”). Cuba, the lyrics show, is the intended destination.

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