Interview with a rising star of Latin percussion.
Interview: Pablo Batista: Funky Drummer and Flamekeeper
by Abel Delgado (Abel_Delgado@descarga.com)
I first saw Pablo playing for this local band in Philly, opening up for El Gran Combo in 1990. When it came time for his solo, he attacked the congas like they had said something about his mother. My friend Chris asked me if my brother, Tony Rumba, an accomplished self-taught conguero, could get with Pablo. As bad as Tony was, I had to say no. We chatted after the concert and later became friends. My brother went on to become his student and play some gigs with him. Since I have no musical ability whatsoever, I just hung out with Pablo, drank beer and listened to Irakere and Muñequitos records with him.
But don't think nepotism drove me to sit down with Pablo and do this interview. It's more about who he is as a musician. Despite having played with the top pop, jazz and R&B acts around, ranging from Jeffery Osborne and Phyllis Hyman to Regina Belle and the late great Grover Washington Jr., he remains committed to preserving folkloric Cuban and Puerto Rican music while pushing the musical envelope with distinctive Latin jazz. This is reflected in his new album that he produced and is marketing himself called Ancestral Call: The Messenger. And it's the real: great roots music plus cutting edge Latin jazz. But because of industry factors, he's swimming against the tide, both commercially and aesthetically. As such, I wanted to pull people's coats to him; he's one of the few musical gunslingers left. So check him out as he describes himself and his music. I think your neurons (and ears, if you listen to his music) will thank you.
Abel Delgado: I guess the best place to always begin with these sort of things is (duh) at the beginning. Can you go over your background, where you were born and your musical influences growing up?
Pablo Batista: My parents are from Puerto Rico. They came over to the United States in 1954. My father came from Puerto Rico to work at Bethlehem Steel. My mother came to Bethlehem looking for work as well, she was working in a factory and actually, my parents met in Bethlehem, PA (this is a small town about 60 miles from Philadelphia). I was born and raised there. I didn't speak much English, Spanish was my first language, and as a little boy I was always banging on garbage cans, test tubes, pencils. In second grade I got smacked by the teacher for playing with my pencils on the desk...that's when I knew [I had] an uncontrollable rage to play.
AD: What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
PB: Earth, Wind and Fire, Tavares, the OJ's, the Dovells. I was able to single out the percussion in all of these groups. But my love was the Latin stuff. I always had a deep burning desire to go into the root and I got heavy into the New York salsa, Barretto, Mongo SantamarÌa.
My father...he knew this man by the name of Miguel Candia, who actually grew up with Mãeñgue who was Giovanni's [Giovanni Hidalgo] father, and he was one of the people that was instrumental in teaching Giovanni as a kid. My father met him and said, "Look, my son's interested in playing," and I went to his crib, we became real cool friends, and he was my first teacher.
AD: How old were you at that time?
PB: I was about 9 or 10. By 11 or 12 I was out gigging.
AD: Who did you play with?
PB: I was in this little salsa band...and then I started playing R&B and got into some rock and reggae bands.
AD: So these were local bands in Bethlehem?
PB: Absolutely...there was a really nice little circuit. [By that time] I was...listening to Steely Dan, Santana...I would listen to a lot of Paulhino Da Costa, who was a West Coast Brazilian percussionist, and Ralph McDonald's another huge influence. I was listening to how these cats would do records. I learned Ralph's style in and out on conga drums, because he had maybe three or four grooves that he would play and they were great, they locked. Those two percussionists were basically my education in pop, R&B, and jazz.
AD: So you played from 9 or 10 through high school, you're gigging with a bunch of different bands, take me through the rest of the progression as you get out of high school...
PB: Well, I graduated from high school... and ended up coming to Temple University (in Philadelphia), where I received my bachelor's degree in 1985. But I was still playing.
When I graduated, Grover Washington was producing this artist, her name was Jean Carnes. A friend of mine gave Jean Carnes' manager a tape (of Pablo playing). Grover...called me up to audition for him. So I did and he said, "Come back tomorrow, you're on the record." I recorded two or three cuts on the record, including "Closer than Close," and it was a hit. From there...a producer in Philadelphia named Nick Martinelli was producing a whole bunch of folks, including a young singer named Regina Belle. It was her first record, which was called All By Myself. So I jumped on that. Then I did some stuff with Billy Preston, Gladys Knight and the Pips...at the same time, I also started working with Phyllis Hyman...then I started working with Diane Reeves, it kind of snowballed.
I was also constantly trying to get an audition with Jeffrey Osborne, because I really loved his music. They didn't want to give me the audition cause I was in Philly, they wanted an L.A. cat, but I convinced them to give me a shot. I got the gig.
AD: Your trajectory seems different from a lot of the other congueros that have come up. You sort of took an "American" kind of trajectory in that sense as opposed to a strictly Latin kind of trajectory. Was this for commercial reasons?
PB: Well man, it was survival. Because I'm gonna tell you, it was hard to make a living playing salsa or Latin music. I was just going where people were calling. I would get frustrated a lot of times 'cause I wouldn't get a chance to really stretch out and play hard, but I was playing what the music required. I would play these gigs and come home and put on Irakere, Barretto, Rubén Blades. It's kind of like a dual personality I had going on, and I still do.
Around 1991 I got a phone call from Jeffrey Osborne kind of releasing me from the band. He said, "Listen, I need for you to move to L.A. If not, I can't really afford it (flying Pablo out to L.A.) And I had just bought my house, I just had my son, he was just born. So I had to leave that band, I was like on skid row for a minute. And then one day I got a phone call from Grover and he said, "Listen, would you like to join the band?" So, needless to say, I was like, "Yo, let's hit it."
At that time, I was teaching at AMLA (Asociación de Músicos Latinoamericanos, a Latin musicians organization in Philadelphia that promotes Latin music through music lessons and concerts). I also did some research and won some grants and I went to Cuba and started studying, "post-graduate" kind of work with cats like Changuito. I also spent quite a bit of time with Anga and Pello el Afrokan, who I became very close with. I also studied with one of my favorites, Roberto Vizcaíno, who I think is a world-class teacher/performer.
AD: What else were you doing at this time? I guess this places us around the early 90's or so, into the mid-90's.
PB: Pretty much I worked with Grover, [jazz bassist] Charles Fambrough and a few other artists. Later, as time went on, I did this little jazz festival where we opened up for Manny Oquendo and Libre. They saw me and they dug me and they asked me to join the band. That's been more recently, the last 2 1/2 years.
AD: Has it been difficult basing yourself in Philadelphia to keep your career going?
PB: It's extremely difficult because there's not a lot of gigs...there's only a couple gigs coming out of here, so you gotta really be almost the best at your game in Philly so that you can get the one or two gigs that do exist here, and I've been able to try to keep myself together and keep studying.
AD: How come you stayed instead of going off to New York or L.A., one of the bigger centers?
PB: Well, one of the reasons is I have a home here, as you can see, and my son, and I'm married now, plus the fact that in Philadelphia I work all the time, I'm constantly busy in Philly. In New York, that wouldn't be the case, it's so competitive, so saturated with musicians, but I think that no matter where I'm at, I can work. But I'm really busy in Philadelphia. That's one of the reasons why it's made it difficult for me to leave.
AD: In terms of your Libre gig, I know Jimmy Bosch calls it the "school of Mannny Oquendo." What have you been learning at that particular school?
PB: I call it the University of Libre. That's what I call it. What have I learned? Wow. The importance of simplicity and pocket. You know, playing in the pocket. I've also learned to respect the tradition of Latin music and the integrity that Manny has been able to uphold for over 25 years.
AD: I know that you're heavy into the Cuban folklore, but I'm curious about a lot of the aspects of the Puerto Rican folklore that you've also studied. For instance, are there a lot of variations of bomba?
PB: Yeah, there's, there's definitely a bunch of different styles, for instance: yubá, holandés, siká, orientá...that's what people fail to realize, you know. The folklore in Puerto Rico is just as rich and beautiful as anywhere in the world. It oftentimes gets ignored or overlooked because of the richness of the Afro-Cuban folklore traditions. I don't want that to happen.
AD: Let's talk about this record that you came out with (Ancestral Call: The Messenger) that, more than anything, is a Latin jazz record. I'm curious to see as to why you picked that particular style of music to explore in coming out with your first record.
PB: What a lot of people don't realize is that there are different styles of Latin jazz.. What I did with this project is try to encompass styles that I've always loved and I dug. I'm Puerto Rican, but I love rumba. A piece of my heart is also Cuban, so I embraced that, I embraced my culture, and I embraced American jazz. It's characteristic of who I am.
AD: I thought it interesting, too, that on this recording when it came time to record more traditional forms of Latin music, that you picked bomba ("Cerraron la Factoría") and plena ("El Numerito").
PB: I don't hear a whole lot of bomba and plena coming out, and I felt the need to do it. The bomba tune is actually a semi-autobiographical in that it talks about "cerraron la factoría", and basically, what we're talking about is about the closing of Bethlehem Steel. Back in the day, my father and my friends' fathers were able to go out and make a living. By the time my generation came up, Bethlehem Steel was closing.
It was very intentional (for him to record these kinds of songs), because as you know, this music traditionally was a form of reporting what was going on in the town, depicting what was going on at the time...it was social commentary.
AD: Were you worried about doing the standard like "Afro-Blue." I mean, it's a tune that Mongo Santamaría composed and performed and he's a giant in percussion. Other jazz artists have covered it, but they're not percussionists. Now you do a version of it. Was it intimidating or difficult to play this kind of a tune, which will always be associated with a legend of the drums?
PB: No, not at all. I'm pretty confident in what I do. I never heard it done in abaku· before. And I did all the percussion parts to it...I arranged it, coming from abakuá to the Puerto Rican Afro rhythm of yubá...I felt that it would treat the song with the respect and the integrity of the tradition of Mongo Santamaría.
AD: Not to get off track here, but I am very curious. What is yubá?
PB: Yubá is a bomba rhythm that is one of the few rhythms in Puerto Rico that's in 3/4 time, which is basically half of 6/8. I learned it from doing research and listening to records by la familia Cepeda. They played it on barriles, which are expensive and hard to find in the U.S. The barriles give bomba a whole different sound, a different timbre. They're kind of like a cross between a conga and a djembe and use goat skin.
AD: How would you describe your own particular style and approach to conga drumming, to differentiate yourself from, let's say, Patato, or Giovanni, or the other great congueros out there?
PB: I have total respect and admiration for all these guys, and I got a chance to hang with some of them, including Giovanni and Jerry (González). They've been extremely receptive and warm as human beings. I like to play what some of those cats played, but I have to have my own identity, and so, you might hear me quoting a little Patato, a little bit of Giovanni, a little bit of Jerry, but ultimately, you're gonna hear some other stuff, because I study cats, but not with the obsessiveness of playing like them. Because what makes Pablo Batista Pablo Batista are all my experiences in America, in my life, and listening to and studying a whole range of cats. I love playing five congas, I love playing melodic stuff, and I love the speed...and I like coming up with my own grooves.
AD: The last tune was one of my favorite tunes on the album, was "El Callejón de los Rumberos", composed by Calixto Callava. Before we rolled tape, you told me you got the inspiration to do this tune and include it on the album from hanging out with Yoruba Andabo in Cuba, who also does this tune.
PB: Absolutely, they did it, I love the song, I love the lyrics, and you know, it's kind of like an acknowledgement of their kindness. I tried to put a little twist in it, do it a little differently...I did a batá rumba thing, but then I switched it to iyesá in a solo, something that Changuito taught me, and then I...put another coro on the end of it, just to make it real fun and switch it up a little bit.
AD: To wrap this thing up, it's important to talk about your direction with this particular project. You as the artist have taken control of this project, as opposed to the record company doing it. Not too many other people have done that. I think the only ones that are really trying would be The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, who's trying to sell his music via the Internet, and maybe Public Enemy, people like that who are trying to take the record companies out of the equation. In your case I think circumstances seemed to have forced your hand (Note: the company that originally issued Pablo's album went under, so he's marketing it himself with his own label, Slap Hard Records) but I'm curious to hear what you think about this whole situation?
PB: These are really interesting times witih the Internet and modernization of life. Artists can take a little more control of their careers and get themselves out there...without having the support of this huge machine, which basically says, "Yeah, you can record this, but you can't do this." They actually tried to do that with me on this project. They didn't want me to do any Batá stuff, they didn't want me to have any canto to Eleguá. When things start getting a little nervous. As an artist, I said, "Look, man, this is part of what I am, this is part of the music, these are the parts of the tradition," and i just want to treat them with the integrity they deserve.