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For These Cuban Jazz Musicians, Music Was More Than Just a Way Out of Poverty

Left to right: Edgar Pantoja-Aleman (piano), Pedrito Martinez (drums), Jhair Sala (percussion). Not pictured: Sebastian Natal (bass).

Spend more than a few minutes in the vicinity of Pedrito Martinez’s jazz-infused rumbas (or rumba-infused jazz, if you prefer), and you will find it hard not to tap your foot, move your hips, and swing to the music. 

Pedrito’s is a unique form of jazz that features traditional Yoruba folkloric music (originally from Nigeria, this musical tradition traveled to Cuba along with around 300,000 African slaves in the 19th century) fused seamlessly with contemporary beats, piano, and congas trading fours, and a hefty dose of Cuban swagger. 

But behind the group’s confident on-stage presence lies a story of overcoming the odds, in which music and poverty are intertwined. 

Pedrito Martinez (drums) and Edgar Pantoja-Aleman (piano) grew up in Cuba, one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere. They came from different backgrounds: Martinez learned to play music in the streets of Cayo Hueso, Havana, with no formal musical training, while Pantoja-Aleman began studying music at age 11 in Santiago, a city on the other end of the island. 

Sebastian Natal (bass) comes from Uruguay, but surrounded himself with Cuban music and culture while living in Buenos Aires. The fourth member of the group, Jhair Sala, who was out of town, was born in Peru, and grew up in New York City.

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“My upbringing in Cuba was not musical,” Martinez told Global Citizen. “That’s to say, it was musical, but not in the sense of going to music school. I learned to play music in the streets, and it was a different learning experience, a distinct experience, but equally good.” 

From an early age, Pantoja-Aleman, on the other hand, studied classical music, and started his musical training not as a pianist, but rather as a trombone player. It wasn’t until he moved to Barcelona to work as a music teacher that he began to develop a greater appreciation for traditional Cuban music. 

“I had started with the fruits [of Cuban music], but I hadn’t seen the roots,” he said. 

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Pantoja-Aleman met Martinez in Havana, but the pair didn’t link up to play music together until much later, when they were reintroduced to one another in New Jersey. 

Now, their musical styles are the perfect complement to one another, and they seem to have an almost cosmic connection as they trade fours mid-performance. 

Their music exudes joy, and Martinez has a penchant for breaking into a wide grin while playing the drums. 

Through music, Martinez said, people, especially people living in poverty, are able to seek out what he calls “la alegría del alma” (“happiness of the soul”). “What music does for us is bring happiness to our soul and allow us to improve our lives in another way, in a positive way that’s more beautiful.”  

“I think that one of the most important factors for being able to survive poverty or any situation in life is to have the joy of music,” he said. 

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Natal, the bassist from Uruguay, echoed this sentiment. “I don’t think that music can eliminate an economic problem,” he said. “But [it can eliminate] a social problem, a problem of disunity.” 

Music, rather than being a concrete means of eliminating poverty, actually plays a greater role: it is a great equalizer. It brings people of all races and creeds together. This idea is what the three artists kept coming back to. 

And this is why the musicians worry about the ever-increasing role of technology in modern life. Having grown up in Cuba — where roughly one in four people have access to the Internet — Martinez and Pantoja-Aleman see modern technology as a destabilizing social force, much unlike music. 

“What I see is that there is more connection with machines than there is with other human beings,” Pantoja-Aleman said. “More important is love amongst ourselves — love toward your family, toward your partner, toward animals.”

The group, for this reason, also cares deeply about the threat of climate change. “We want the new generation to understand how to care for the environment,” Martinez said. 

For island nations like Cuba, and many others throughout the developing world, climate change does not pose a distant threat, but rather an immediate one. Rising temperatures have led to events like 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, which decimated Haiti and blew through Cuba, as well, with dangerous winds and tempestuous rain. 

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The Pedrito Martinez Group has taken it upon themselves to spread their message of joy at their concerts around the world. 

“We travel all around the world,” Martinez said. “ We are messengers of kindness, peace, happiness.” 

And last week, they brought this message to Global Citizens worldwide. The response was nothing less than encouraging.