How Alfredo Rodríguez is trying to break barriers in life and music

Pianist Alfredo Rodríguez and percussionist Pedrito Martinez have joined forces for a new album called Duologue that showcases the artists’ impressive talents honed in Cuba’s vibrant music scene.

Both musicians are originally from Havana and have taken very distinct paths to where they are today. But musically, they have found a unified and unique sound when playing together.

They’re bringing their talents to Niagara-on-the-Lake as part of the Bravo Niagara! Festival of the Arts on Saturday, May 11.

Rodríguez joined Brad Barker over the phone to talk about the new album, his philosophy of breaking down life’s barriers, and what it was like to take a leap of faith and leave Cuba to work with Quincy Jones in the United States.

Brad Barker: Before we talk about the new album, I just want to say that The Little Dream showed up on our Best Albums of 2018 list here at JAZZ.FM91. It was such a terrific recording, and I just want to congratulate you on that one.

Alfredo Rodríguez: Thank you so much.

I wanted to ask you how you and Pedrito met each other. Did you guys know each other growing up in Havana?

Not at all, actually. Pedrito has been here in the U.S. for more than 20 years, and I came here 10 years ago. Also, we’re kind of from a different generation. When Pedrito left Cuba, I was a student and I didn’t have the opportunity to meet him. He grew up in the streets, actually, playing folklore music — rumba, guaguancó and the santeria. We didn’t go to a classical school of music as musicians usually do in Cuba. So, I didn’t have that opportunity to meet him until I got here to the U.S.

It must have been quite lovely to find that relationship in America that probably works both as people and musically.

We actually met in Switzerland. We were playing a festival there. We decided to play something together, and I invited Pedrito to be a featured artist on my second recording from 2014, The Invasion Parade. We did a song with Esperanza Spalding. After that, we knew we wanted to keep finding a way of collaborating, and I said to Pedrito, “Let’s just put together some concerts so we play as a duo.” At that time, Pedrito used to have just the four congas and that’s it. I said to him, “Let’s try to incorporate new percussion instruments.” I knew that it was going to be a challenge, because Pedrito plays percussion instruments just with the hands. We incorporated a cajone that sounds like a big drum. We incorporated the hi-hat, the snare, cymbals and many other percussion instruments from Cuba. Since the moment we did our first concert in St. Louis … I said, “Let’s go to a studio. Let’s record some music.” And the result is Duologue.

Rhythm seems to be at the heart of Cuban music, obviously, but also in your playing. And in some ways, you’ve turned the piano into a percussive instrument. You’re equally in that rhythm game as you are in the melody.

I wanted to be a drummer first. I still feel like a drummer when I play the piano. And why not? With the piano or any instrument, you can form them into whatever you want in your mind. I think that’s the most important. The beautiful thing about the piano is that it can become anything — endless possibilities. Anything that comes to my mind, I try to play. It’s a very fascinating world.

This is something you’ve said in the past: “My life has always been [about] trying to break those barriers that we put onto ourselves as human beings, not even just as musicians.” That seems to be your philosophy. 

It is. As you might know, I’ve been trying to break barriers when it comes to music, but also because it has been my life. Usually when people hear about Cuban musicians, they feel like you have to be in that box of Cuban music. I have become a global citizen in so many ways … My music has been transformed since I came here [to the U.S.]. My goal is to reflect whatever we’re living in the whole world, not just one culture. I try to reach as many as people as possible with a message of peace, love and passion. Music is a big force to make my life happy every day.

Well, anyone who’s putting out peace and love in this day and age — more of it, please. You know, Quincy Jones is part of your story. I’m sure you’ve talked about him a lot, but what I thought was interesting was that when you crossed the border and you were looking for asylum, you waited until you were on the other side before you called Quincy or his people and said, “I’m here now.” So you didn’t quite know what was going to happen and it was such a giant leap of faith to do that and then hope things would come together. It must have been an incredible moment for you.

That’s true. I didn’t know anything. I threw myself into a very different situation. Cuba has been a very isolated country for so many years. So, I exposed myself to a very different and extreme situation, because the U.S. is the opposite. You come here and you meet so many people, you have so many different ways of living than what we’re used to in Cuba. I didn’t even know what was a credit card, anything. It’s a very extreme and dramatic moment in your life, but at the same time, I have learned so much and I am so glad I met [Quincy Jones] because he has made me a different person in a positive way. It always was my dream to come here to the U.S. and learn about music that I love so much, because I got very cultivated by Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans, so many musicians that have created such a powerful culture in the States, so I wanted to come here and explore it myself. It’s been a beautiful path, and I just hope to continue growing up as a human being and as a musician.

The material on the recording Duologue is in most cases written by the two of you, but there’s also some really interesting selections in there, too. There’s a rendition of Thriller that was made famous by Michael Jackson, and then you’ve got the Mario Bros. theme. I love that you’re not putting barriers on material, either. You’re just saying what works, works. What we want to play, let’s play it.

I’ve been very active for several years on social media, so I’ve been posting videos of music that I relate to and music that I like, and transforming it into my heritage, my culture, my roots in Cuba. We have this genre of popular music called timba — it’s very danceable. So, I’d been transforming [songs] that I like. When I was doing them, I wasn’t thinking about this duo. But when we were going into the studio, Pedrito is a master of percussion in Cuban music, so I said, “Here’s these versions, these covers.” I knew he was going to add whatever I was thinking. And whatever I had in my mind, it was exactly what Pedrito was playing. It was so beautiful.

Click here to get tickets to see Alfredo Rodríguez & Pedrito Martinez in concert on Saturday, May 11, in Niagara-on-the-Lake.