Following in the footsteps of Mario Bauza, Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, Eddie Palmieri and Machito, internationally renowned award winning master percussionist, songwriter, producer, bandleader and educator Pablo Batista is spearheading a movement to bring Latin jazz into the mainstream.
“I’ve been carrying the torch for a long time. I just haven’t been making any noise,” says Batista, prior to a recent performance in Philly. “Latin Jazz has been going on for years in New York City and L.A. In Philadelphia there haven’t been too many cats that have been able to keep the flame going. It’s very difficult for me to find players. I’m very particular about my boys because the music that we play, if you don’t study that music you won’t be able to play it, it’s too hardcore. We’re doing all these really cool elements of bringing in African Cuban folklore into the jazz thing and combine it with other bits of rhythm and big band elements along with funk and what’s going on today. We sprinkle it all together like a gumbo. I’m pushing hard to get the band out in the northeast corridor of the country and spread my name.”
Rooted deeply in the traditions of Afro-Cuban and Latin Jazz, Philly’s Pablo Batista’s ability to cross over into R&B, soul, gospel and pop has found him recording, performing and touring with award winning icons Alicia Keys, Patti Labelle, Kirk Franklin, Gerald Levert, Jeffrey Osborne and the Philadelphia Orchestra Percussion Ensemble among others. Through his association with these artists, Batista has been the recipient of multiple Gold and Platinum albums.
“I’ve been studying my instrument since I was 9 years old,” recalls Batista. “I’ve been working, carving and studying the master Afro-Cuban, Puerto Rican and African drummers for a long, long time. What I bring that is different is folklore to the jazz setting. I’m all over the map. I know how to do these things and come in and out of rhythms.”
Batista’s music career started to take off after graduating from Temple University in 1985. Befriending the late Grover Washington, Jr., he joined his touring band as percussionist until Washington’s tragic passing in 1999.
“I’ve worked with many artists and he’s my favorite,” says Batista. “He took me right from Temple University when I was 21 and I was with him until he died. I was the last person in the band to see him alive. We did the CBS Early Show and as soon as I walked away he had a massive heart attack. He was 53. It took me years to get over his passing.”
It didn’t take long for Batista to land another big break when he signed on with Alicia Keys, recording and touring with the superstar until 2012.
“I just kept grinding and grinding and never worried about accolades. All of a sudden somebody was acknowledging it,” recalls Batista. “She decided to have a child, got off the road and got married and basically dismantled the band. After that I went into, ‘Let me do me now!’”
Passionate, focused and driven with his lifelong commitment to Afro-Cuban drumming and culture, Batista created opportunities to further his career through grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and multiple Fellowships in the arts through the Pew Center for Arts Heritage. He was awarded multiple trips to Cuba where he studied under the masters Pello “el Afrokan,” Roberto Vizcaino, Miguel “Anga” Diaz as well as members of Ballet Folklórico Cutumba,
Batista was awarded a jazz residency and commission in 2013 from Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, culminating in the 2014 performance of his opera “The Journey.” The following year, thanks to another Pew grant, Batista’s opera was performed at Temple Performing Arts Center. Batista and his band performed for Pope Francis during his Papal visit to Philadelphia.
Born with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), a disease that causes gradual blindness, Batista’s never give up attitude has seen him take this hurdle and turn it into an asset.
“What God takes he gives you something else in return,” says Batista. “I probably have about 4 percent of my vision left. My lack of eyesight has turned into an asset. I have incredible hearing and I can feel the energy of the audience even though I can’t see them very well. I speak with my music and with my hands. I’ve dedicated my whole life to this path. I’m very, very blessed to be here and I feel very fortunate that people call and I’m working and I’m doing my thing.”
“I take what I do very seriously. I study it everyday,” adds Batista. “I’m very diligent. I’m not here because of chance. I’m here because I feel like I was ordained to do this and this is what I do. We’re having a blast and people are loving it.”
Recognizing the limited opportunities aspiring musicians face in low-income communities, Batista has been giving with his time at community centers in North Philadelphia and master classes at the Curtis Institute for years.
“I’m a man, a husband and a father,” says Bastia. “I try to take care of all my responsibilities with the gifts God has given me and the limitations. With that in mind, I try to stay happy and positive along that path and make a difference.”
I’m lucky that I’m doing something that I love. It’s a blessing,” adds Batista. “My work ethic came from my parents and I wanted to channel it into something that makes people happy and I think I’ve been able to do that.”
As a follow-up to his recently re-released “Ancestral Call” album, look for a Live CD/ DVD and studio album coming this year.
IF YOU GO
What: Pablo Batista joins Gerald Veasley’s Bass BootCamp All-Star Concert
Where: The Ardmore Music Hall, 23 E. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore, PA 19003
When: Concert is at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 17.