Here’s how Pablo Batista was bitten by the music bug: studying with percussion master Miguel Candia at the tender age of 9. The young Bethlehem, Pa., native began playing paid gigs when he was 12, and the complex arrangements of Afro-Caribbean music captured his imagination. Batista went on to graduate from Temple, teach Caribbean percussion at Philadelphia’s Artistas Y Musicos Latino Americanos (Latin American Musician Association), and, in 1991, win a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts to study folklore in Cuba. A more serious, protracted study of Afro-Cuban drumming and culture followed, and Batista traveled to Cuba to further research the percussive arts. From there, he’s gone on to perform and record alongside some of the most notable artists across a span of genres, including the late Grover Washington, Jr., Phyllis Hyman, Gerald Levert, Teddy Pendergrass, Eddie Palmieri, Bono and, most recently, Alicia Keys.
Batista is currently a jazz residency artist at the Kimmel Center, where, after months of workshops and preparation, he and his white-hot band, the Mambo Syndicate, are set to present an intimate session Thursday night, showcasing their unfinished collaborative projects in its SEI Innovation Studio. Their goal is to fuse the ancient Bata rhythms of the Yoruba, Afro-Cuban beats and jazz. Through this work-in-progress, audiences will have a rare opportunity to experience the reality and rawness of the creative process. And it’s free.
PW recently chatted with the tireless congero about his illustrious career and what’s to come.
PW: What were some of your influences within Latin jazz?
PABLO BATISTA: Definitely the classics, or what I like to call the Golden Age of Salsa. Salsa was made for the dancer. You had acts like Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, La Lupe, Willie Colon—all of them played at the Palladium in New York in the ‘50s and early ‘60s on Sunday afternoons. People would come out in droves; the whole family would come down and dance and just have a good time. And these guys would play, like, three to four sets apiece a night, and then go into the studio to record all night. There are hundreds of albums that were recorded at that point, hours and hours of music that so many people have never heard.
What are some of your most memorable performances?
There’s been a lot, but I’d have to say the World Cup with Alicia Keys in 2010 was pretty cool. It was a global stage, ya know? Forty-thousand people in the stands, about a billion viewers around the world. It was amazing. I managed to convince one of the camera guys to give me a little screen time, too. I said, “Come on, man. My mom is watching at home; you gotta help me out!” It was only a couple of seconds, but it was worth it.
Playing the Grammys with Alicia was also pretty neat. You don’t really have time to think about who’s watching while you’re up there, so me and the band just try to have fun. I’ve played a couple prison gigs with the Mambo Syndicate, too. Those were interesting, if nothing else. Those guys were so appreciative on a level I wasn’t expecting. You had Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Haitians, guys from different cultural backgrounds losing their mind when their music got played live. They were harrowing experiences, but incredibly rewarding.
You’ve received a Pew Fellowship to study Latin jazz in Cuba. How was learning about Afro-Cuban music from its source?
Not easy! [laughs] We were playing on top of rooftops with the sun blaring down on our backs. It was so immersive. All the guys we played with had such a disciplined preservation of African rhythms in their music. The style of percussion is strictly maintained, and the richness of the music and culture is meticulously passed down so that nothing gets lost.
What’s next, as far as future projects are concerned?
It’s all about the grind for me. Producing records, just staying in the studio and staying hungry. I may decide to go back out on tour sometime soon, but for right now, it’s just about putting that work in. This is a blue collar, working-class town. Me and the guys work hard on stage so that people watching can forget how hard they have to work in their everyday lives—if at least for a moment or so.
Thurs., May 15, 8pm. Free. SEI Innovation Studio in the Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St. 215.893.1999. kimmelcenter.org
PW's Music Issue 2014