Sabu was recognized as a virtuoso percussionist at a young age. Playing for the major Latin and be-bop names as a teenager, it was not long before he teamed up with top jazz artists and created astounding Afro-Latin jazz. With his own group he recorded the two wildest "exotica" records ever. and he continued working for great stars in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Eventually he moved to Sweden, where he led a conga school, resumed making records, and contributed to top Latin, big band, pop, jazz, fusion, and funk groups.
Louis "Sabu" Martinez was born July 14th, 1930 in New York City's El Barrio (Spanish Harlem). As a youth he got into all sorts of trouble but also banged on cans in a street band. His professional career began at age 11, when he began playing Latin percussion for renowned mambo and jazz bands, touring. In 1944 he returned from Puerto Rico to New York, where he continued to play in famous bands and develop his technique.
Sabu claimed the Lecuona Cuban Boys as major influences as well as the legendary Chano Pozo. In 1948 Sabu replaced Pozo in Dizzy Gillespie's last big band; the baton of Afro-Cuban jazz drumming literally was passed to Sabu. He joined Benny Goodman the following year. Other mentors were his friends Art Blakey, with whom he was associated from 1949 to 1958, Arsenio Rodriguez, and Candido. He did his famous “Palo Congo,” session in 1957 with Arsenio. He was a member of the original Joe Loco Trio, which recorded the first mambo in America. He performed in Broadway's "House of Flowers" and with other luminaries such as Xavier Cugat, Tony Bennett, and Sammy Davis, Jr.
From 1953 to 1957, Sabu recorded with Art Blakey, memorably leading a rhythm section on the fantastic “Orgy in Rhythm” session. The Blakey/Sabu recordings showcase the interplay of two master drummers and successfully pair both African and [African-derived] Latin rhythms. They provide convincing renditions of traditional African as well as improvisational tunes and motifs, complete with gongs, wild cries, and authentic Swahili chants.
Sabu formed his own quintet in 1957 and recorded three exotic classics: “Palo Congo,” for Blue Note, “Safari,” for RCA, and “Sorcery,” for Columbia. While not masterpieces of jazz, “Safari,” and “Sorcery,” are the strangest, most powerful recordings in the dubious "exotica" idiom.
Like many jazzmen in the late 1950s, Sabu struggled with heroin addiction, which took its toll on him as on all of jazz. He took odd jobs and even left music for a time, at one point running a strip joint on Baltimore's famous "Block." But with the help of friends he landed new gigs. In 1960 he joined Louie Ramirez briefly to record one of the masterpieces of Latin jazz, “Jazz Espagnole.”