Alpha 606
Electrónica Afro-Cubano

Robots, Castro, Perez Prado, electrofunk and good ol' grandma's cooking. Spannered meets Miami resident Armando Martinez midway through his European tour

By Alex Ward

 
"I've been travelling for three months, doing the couch-surfing thing. I've become quite the expert," Armando Martinez tells me at a south London flat midway through his European tour. I'm inclined to agree: curtains are drawn, cables and machines sprawl across the bed, and the famous Cuban song El Muerto se fue de Rumba swaggers charmingly from the speakers. He translates every line from Spanish for me with great enthusiasm: a funeral is underway; the body of a distinguished percussionist is soon to be interred, but when the band strikes up at his wake the corpse will not lie still; it gets out of the coffin and gets its jive on. So it goes.

"You could say, well, I wasn't born there – and that's true, I was born in Miami — but [it's in] my blood," he declares. "I really feel a longing for Cuba and it's music, and I find myself in songs from Cuba, songs from ages ago."

Born to Cuban immigrant parents, followers of the Santería religion, Martinez grew up surrounded by Afro-Cuban rhythms. Now recording and performing under the name Alpha 606, he defines his style as Electrónica Afro-Cubano: a blend of contemporary electro with Cuban percussion, which he plays live and samples. Whereas many electronic music producers just "add the token Latin percussion", Martinez prefers to massage hand-played polyrhythms deep into his streamlined electro stylings.

As one might expect, his tracks are far from the bombastic electro anthems for which Miami's dance music scene has, for better or worse, been in part equated with. He tells me that lately he's been listening back to 1988's seminal Miami Bass Wars compilation. "I love robots too! Yeah. I'm sure that really influenced me and inspired me. But really what I'm doing is moving percussion to the forefront of the music. This is the main part of the music. It's not part of the rhythm section. It's the singer in the front of the band."

A guitarist for 18 years, playing in bands for much of that time, Martinez began the Alpha 606 project back in 1998 with his friend Rey Rubio. Latin percussionists Marino Hernandez and Danny Chirino came onboard for live performances in 2003, with the quartet playing a number of shows before they each went their separate ways. "It seemed I'd just been trying to get away from bands... and all of a sudden I'm in a band again. It was cool at the beginning, up until the point when people start being told what to do — and nobody wants to be told what to do, and I fully understand that. These guys [Hernandez and Chirino] were great, really into Latin music. Perhaps with time something cool might have come from that." Martinez and Rubio were behind the first Alpha 606 release, the Computer Controlled EP, released on Rubio's Dopamine imprint in 2004. Since then Martinez has been operating solo under the name, putting out music on Monotone, Touchin' Bass, Transient Force and, most recently, Ectomorph's hallowed Interdimensional Transmissions.

He attributes the Alpha 606 title, a reference to both Roland's TR 606 and Alpha 66, a paramilitary anti-Castro group formed by Cuban exiles at the start of the '60s, to Rubio. Reasonable to assume then that Martinez himself holds anti-Castro views? He sighs when conversation turns to Cuba's divisive leader. "The way I look at it is, man, is there a person that you really trust so much that you'd put them for 50 years in power?"

"At the time I didn't really know much about Alpha 66, but let me say this — I speak out on injustices that I've seen everywhere, from the US to Cuba, and when I went to Cuba for the first time I was hoping to see, wow, a better way to live, a less consumer-driven place, where things are more simple, and when I went there it wasn't really like that. I saw a lot of double standards."

While Alpha 66 remains notoriously linked to a spate of bombings and assassinations in '70s Miami, Martinez describes himself as "a peace-loving hippie". "I don't agree with violent measures to achieve any perceived peace on a land. At the end of the day, if you are Cuban, we're killing Cubans. I'm interested in peaceful solutions. There's a lot of division between the Cubans in Miami and the Cubans in Cuba, and they each have names for each other. I don't believe that way, you know. There are protests for when a musician plays in Cuba. Hey man, let the music be heard."

Despite this message of peace, he has received hate mail from "some guy on the internet" over the Alpha 66 association. "I'm not even going to repeat the things he said. It's obviously a stance. That person really doesn't know me. But yeah, they were offended by that, by the name, because they do support Castro. And that's fine – you could tell somebody that without insulting them, and if you don't want to enter into a debate with that person then it's obvious that you don't really want to learn the truth, or solve anything. I know a lot of people who do support the supposed revolution in Cuba, because they see it as the little guy standing up to the big corporations of the world, but it's not as black and white a picture as that. It's riddled with its own sets of problems."

Martinez was last in Cuba 10 years ago. With a life-long love of the country's musical heritage, he was disheartened to find traditional music forms eclipsed in popularity by imported boy bands, pop and the like. Hip hop and reggaeton have since rooted themselves on the island, but with super-limited internet access and no party scene to support electronic music in the broader sense, he's doubtful that many Cuban artists are working to combine their ancestral roots with contemporary styles. "I don't really know how exposed they are to electronic music", he admits.

He just remixed a track made by Perez Prado, who he keenly cites as his greatest Cuban influence. "He was a pianist and a composer and an arranger, and brought a lot of new elements to Cuban music," says Armando. "Sometimes he would play the piano in clusters, with your fists like that, somehow making it sound great, you know, if your rhythm is on, depending on the context." He goes on to explain how Prado was "basically blackballed" in Cuba because the authorities believed his music was too influenced by the US. "He couldn't play out. Nobody could hire him as a composer or an arranger for their works, so basically he went to Mexico, and when he hit on Mexico and the Mexicans heard that... they were blown away."

"Mexico has a thriving movie scene. While they had no movies in Cuba, they had them in Mexico, so you see tons of Mexican movies with Cuban actors in them. In the old Mexican movies they would always have a section where Perez Prado comes on with his band and he just goes off into a four-minute jam, and there's no real dialogue or anything like that. And the band is playing live, right there."

Martinez is no stranger to playing his music away from home. His current tour has taken him to Belgium, France, Holland, Germany and the UK, with shows lined up in Madrid, Brussels and Paris before he heads back to Miami. With the debut Alpha 606 album due to drop in the coming months, he's keen to get back to his recently finished studio — and after months of sofa-surfing, he's naturally missing a few home comforts, too.

"I'm looking forward to my grandmother's cooking, a big old Cuban meal. I swear to God I'm going to pig out."
 
(Footnote. Back in Miami, following his UK tour, Armando headed off to Detroit to headline the 9th annual Interdimensional Transmissions Halloween party. There he signed his debut album deal with I.T., due for release early 2010.)

 Listen to an Alpha 606 live set recorded exclusively for Spannered here.
EshOne posted 7 January 2010 (19:32:28)
I love Perez Prado, I grew up with that shit. Gonna download because that name was on here. (If this is a download.) I just got super excited. Fuck yeah. I also love your site and my web design clients always say 'can you make something like this?' It's happened 3 times already. Why I'm here today :) Big work!
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