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Just a beat away: Congo Square New World Rhythms Festival

18th March 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

The Congo Square New World Rhythms Festival, Saturday, March 23 and Sunday, March 24, celebrates the melodies, beats and dances of the African diaspora. In New Orleans, these African traditions were kept vital by enslaved Africans who, uniquely in all of the United States, were allowed to congregate and express their musical heritages at the very spot, Congo Square, where the festival takes place.

The music throughout the two-day event (11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.) boasts a full range of styles. The simple, traditional sound of a Drum Circle opens the activities each day while other performers stand as a testimony to how African music evolved after it landed on various shores due to the slave trade.

A few of the highlights of the festival mentioned here demonstrate the variety of music that is being presented. On Saturday at 1 p.m. there will be a tribute to percussionist Alfred “Uganda” Roberts, who remains most renowned for performing and recording with Professor Longhair from 1972 until Fess’ death in 1980. Roberts will be on congas for the three-part set that will start off with a medley of Professor Longhair’s classics with Tom Worrell on piano and a band that includes the horns of saxophonist Red Morgan and trumpeter Mario Abney. The next section of the performance focuses on Roberts’ work with his Afro-Calypso Band that played at the 1970 Jazz Fest. Finally, Uganda will be joined for the “Raising the Roof of the Sky” drum circle with festival headliners. percus­sionists Pedrito Martinez and Alexey Marti, who will each lead their own ensembles later in the day, and New Orleans’ Jonathan Bloom.

As a musician visible all over the New Orleans scene, Roberts is certainly deserving of this tribute. He grew up in the Tremé neighborhood and was introduced to the Cuban and Caribbean sounds by the many merchant marines who used to live and jam together in the area. He began playing bongos but added congas to his equipment in order to play at jazz clubs with greats like drummers Smokey Johnson and James Black and saxophonist Earl Turbinton. Roberts worked as a house percussionist at Sea-Saint Studio, recorded with Dr. John and presently plays congas with blues guitarist John Mooney.

The Pedrito Martinez Group, a forward-thinking, Afro-Cuban quartet which some might have caught at last year’s highly praised Jazz Fest set, closes out Saturday’s schedule from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.. Martinez, 39, a master percussionist and vocalist who was born and learned to play drums in Cuba and moved to New York in 1998, has performed in New Orleans numerous times. He’s played and recorded with our own Los Hombres Calientes, teamed with New Orleans percussionist Michael Skinkus for gigs and arrived here with the Grammy-nominated Yerba Buena band.

“Of all the cities in America, New Orleans has the most similarity to Cuba in every way — the music, the culture and the people,” Martinez says. “The people are very humble, very familiar and down to earth. New Orleans is like Cuba because it’s all about the music; it’s all about having a good time.”

One of the remarkable things about this quartet — percussionist Jhair Sala, electric bassist Alvaro Benvides and keyboard/vocalist Ariacne Truijillo — which has been together since 2008, is not only its longevity but its big sound. “We’ve been doing what modern groups do with 12 to 13 musicians and we do it with four and it’s working,” Martinez remarks. “We make sure that we sound strong enough because we don’t want people to miss the horns, guitar or drum set.”

While Martinez’s main focus is, he says, the Afro-Cuban style he grew up with and is trying to preserve, his 14 years in New York and playing with a broad range of musicians, has logically influenced him. The result is music based on tradition topped with a modern and funky approach.

“It sounds modern because I’m a very curious person and I was trying to find a different color, a different sound. A lot of things are happening in New York daily and I try to keep myself always updated with what’s going on with the music. Also, Martinez points out that only pianist Trujillo is from Cuba with Sala and Benvides coming from Peru and Venezuela, respectively, and therefore they offer flavors and rhythmic nuances from their cultures.

Martinez’s connections to New Orleans remain solid. He and his band just finished its new CD — due out next fall — that boasts guest artist, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. When New Orleanian Herlin Riley, who Martinez calls one of the “greatest drummers on the whole planet,” is in New York, he often drops by the Guantanamo club to sit in with Martinez and company.

“The only reason that I’m not living in New Orleans is because I’m stupid,” Martinez says with a laugh. “It’s a very inspiring city.”

A native of Cuba and percussionist who did move to the Crescent City, Alexey Marti also leads his own band on Saturday. Marti traveled here about four years ago to enroll in the University of New Orleans’ jazz studies program. Importantly, on his graduation this talented and in-demand artist says, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I plan to stay in New Orleans.”

Marti leads the same group at the festival that totally impressed the audience when in 2012 it opened for the legendary pianist Chucho Valdes at a free performance, which, like the Congo Square Festival, was presented by the New Jazz & Heritage Foundation. It’s full of gifted New Orleans-based musicians often heard on the scene. Some of them, including bassist Pat Casey and drummer Julian Addison as well as Marti perform with percussionist Bill Summers’ group Jazalsa. Marti, who studied with Cuba’s great percussionist/vocalist Oscar Valdes, who co-founded the enormously successful group, Irakere, plans to perform Afro-Cuban jazz, original material and New Orleans jazz with a Cuban groove at the Congo Square Festival.

More exceptional programing continues on Sunday including the highly anticipated “Class Got Brass” (3 p.m. to 4 p.m.), a brass band competition that drew big crowds and big praise when it debuted last year. The aim is to encourage students in middle and high schools to form brass bands and keep the tradition going. Some 16 bands from schools from down the street to across the Mississippi will strut their stuff on North Rampart Street and perform before a group of in-the-know judges including trumpeter Gregg Stafford and clarinetist Michael White. The prize is big too — $20,000 worth of instruments for the winning band’s school.

Sunday ends with the Brooklyn-based, East Indian, brass band fusion group Red Baraat that was everywhere — on the streets and in the clubs — during Mardi Gras. Read more about this outstanding group, which boasts influences from New Orleans brass bands, jazz, reggae and more, online in the archives of this column at

This article originally published in the March 18, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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