For so many North American eardrums, the story of Afro-Cuban music begins and ends with Buena Vista Social Club.
The beloved 1997 album — and the 1999 documentary about the unlikely studio sessions that birthed it — transformed a crew of forgotten Cuban maestros into world-renowned players whose songs would cast an immense, singular shadow.
Roberto Fonseca is quite literally stepping out of it. His new album, “Yo,” lunges in fantastic and unexpected directions while remaining rooted in Afro-Cuban musical traditions — traditions the 38-year-old Havana pianist became highly fluent in during the years he spent performing alongside Buena Vista alums, including the late vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer.
“For me, playing with them was like going to the son montuno school,” Fonseca said, referring to the percolating style that forms much of Cuba’s sonic DNA. “I was trying to learn how to play and how to feel.”
Across “Yo,” Fonseca’s touch ranges from lightning-lithe to thunderously heavy, often holding the music’s melodic and percussive center at once. He comes out swinging with “80s,” a thrilling album-starter that resembles Nigerian Afrobeat, with chattering rhythms and vintage jazz fusion in its oily electronic timbres. Dizzying and dazzling, it sounds like falling down the stairs and landing on your feet.
“To me, music doesn’t have frontiers, doesn’t have borders,” Fonseca says over the phone from a tour stop in New Orleans, perhaps the only city in this hemisphere crammed with more musical magic per square foot than Havana. “When people listen to my music, they feel good, even if they’re not from Cuba.”
Fonseca has helped push Afro-Cuban music further into the 21st century on other recordings, too — his work with British dubstep pioneer Mala produced an intriguing 2012 album called “Mala in Cuba.” But, Fonseca said, his desire to move Cuban music ahead feels more personal, almost internal.
“It would have been easy to name myself ‘the Buena Vista Social Club new generation,’ ” Fonseca said. “But now it’s my career, and people are really accepting. We are starting from zero here, and I’m feeling really good. My music is my life, and my life is my music.”
New York percussionist and singer Pedrito Martínez seems to be following similar impulses on the excellent, eponymous debut album from the Pedrito Martínez Group, out Tuesday.
The album grinds the band leader’s original compositions up against tunes made famous by Led Zeppelin and the Jackson 5 — all played with a zeal that should burnish Martinez’s reputation as one of the most vital and charismatic Afro-Latin percussionists on the planet.
The 40-year-old conga player first learned Cuba’s rhythmic dialects in the streets of Havana, but he said his curiosity is continuously stoked by the music of New York City.
“Everything comes from tradition, and what you do is add,” Martínez said over the telephone. “It’s Afro-Cuban music interpreted by someone who’s been in the United States for 15 years.”
Martínez first left his native Cuba for a tour of Canada in 1998, and in 2000, took first place at the Thelonious Monk International Afro-Latin Jazz Hand Drum Competition, held at the Kennedy Center. Since then, he’s appeared on more than 100 recordings, all while performing regularly at private Santeria ceremonies at apartments across various New York boroughs.
His group — an ace quartet that includes keyboardist Ariacne Trujillo, bassist Álvaro Benavides and percussionist Jhair Sala — still maintains a weekly residency at Guantanamera, a Cuban restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen. Martínez said the gig has helped him learn to a play with a dynamism and intensity that can rip across rooms of any size.
“We made this band in a little restaurant where people are eating and talking,” Martínez said. “You don’t know how they’re going to react when you start getting loud and excited. But I get up there and do what I know how to do. I do it from the bottom of my heart. And that’s what they feel.”
© 2013, The Washington Post