By now, Armando Martinez’s Alpha 606 is a well-known name in the Miami electronic music scene, even though he has only had a few releases since he started the project back in 1998 with former member Ray Rubio. The producer, born in Hialeah to Cuban immigrant parents, creates irresistible dance tracks inspired by Miami bass and Detroit techno, but spliced up with percussion and rhythms that reference his Afro-Cuban background.
His latest explorations around these sounds appear on his 2016 album Afro-Cuban Electronics, released by Interdimensional Transmissions. It’s a love letter to the island, urgent in its desire for freedom. After all, the name Alpha 606 comes from the anti-Castro paramilitary group Alpha 66 (and also references de Roland TR-606 synth). On the album, güiros and congas find a home alongside 808 kicks and lush synthesizers, and mambo and guaguancó are paired up with electro.
Martinez is performing live at the third edition of Comunité Festival, in Tulum, joining the likes of James Holden, Carl Craig, Daymé Arocena, and Nicola Cruz. We chatted with him about his production style and relationship to Cuba.
When would you say was the moment in your career as a producer when you decided to let your Afro-Cuban background influence your music?
When I first started learning percussion about 20 years ago, I began with my grandmother’s Cuban congas and the Nigerian djembe. I then began to learn more about traditional Bata polyrhythms in the Lukumí religion. In Lukumí, there is a Batá drum ceremony called tambor, and even though I must have attended close to a hundred of these, it was only when I started playing percussion that I appreciated the complexity and intertwined rhythms of the Yoruba people. I learned how this Nigerian music and Cuban music became best friends and gave birth to Afro-Cuban rumba. The first rumba rhythm I learned to play on conga was guaguancó – the dance that my grandma is quick to say is all in the hips. After that, I felt these elements greatly complemented certain styles of music I was making.
How important is it for you to embrace that influence in your productions?
I feel like having those elements in my music are not always required. Many of my songs have no Afro-Cuban elements whatsoever and I do not want it to be seen as gimmick. My only objective in the end is to make good music that communicates what I’m hearing in my head.
Your life of living in Hialeah and Miami manifests in your work in your affinity for Miami bass. What is it about the genre that makes you come back to it every time?
If you were in high school or junior high in the 80s or 90s and lived in Miami, it was everywhere. Some of my favorite high school memories happened cruising in my friend’s Escort GT with massive Bazooka subs in the back. I remember playing Bass Mekanik and listening to these car bass competition CDs, and loving not being able to breathe [laughs]. Later with my first real drum sampler, the MPC 2000, it was a very natural direction for me to create basslines and drums with tuned 808 samples spread chromatically across the pads.
In the last 10 years I have been doing more synth-style basslines, combining the more common sine wave used for Miami bass with more saw or FM shapes.
This past year has been marked by Castro’s death and the rollercoaster-like relations between the U.S. and Cuba. How would you describe your relationship with the island nowadays?
My relationship with Cuba is one of longing for the day when I can live freely with my family there. Free from the Castro dictatorship that still continues after Fidel’s death, and also free from it becoming a client state to the U.S. later.
I believe in a free Cuba, but I am definitely not like most hard-nosed Cubans in Miami that are pro-embargo or against visits to Cuba. I have always felt in that opening up Cuba will naturally bring more freedom to the island. Cuban music alone is enough of a vehicle to raise awareness about the struggle of the Cuban people, and I hope to play, if even a small part, in that.
Alpha 606 plays Comunité Festival on January 5, 2018. Get your tickets here.