Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Joe Bataan: Ordinary Guy

(excerpts of this article have appeared in Hispanic and Latin Beat magazines – this is the unabridged version).

After surviving a frightening near-death experience five years ago, Latin Soul singer and pianist Joe Bataan experienced an epiphany and has a new lease on life. With renewed faith in God and several new CDs and a DVD on the market, Mr. New York is back again, but this time with the depth of maturity, sense of purpose, and spirituality of a village elder.

“Having played with Puente, Barretto, Celia Cruz, La Lupe, Mongo Santamaria, Charlie Palmieri, and Hector Lavoe was the highlight of my life at that time. This exciting period will never be replaced in history. Music literally filled the streets of New York every day on the radio and the sidewalks of the Big Apple. All the nightclubs were filled and bands played two and three times a night at various locations. We danced on Sundays in the afternoon at the Colgate Gardens and just couldn't get enough of this magic music.” – Joe Bataan, 2006

Joe and Johnny Pacheco, © Joe Conzo, Jr.

They say a cat has nine lives, and Joe Bataan has lived a multitude of them in his long illustrious career. Though out of the scene for many years, Joe is back in great form, with two new CDs and a concert DVD. Born Bataan Nitollano (not Peter Nitollano Jr. as is commonly reported) of a Filipino father and an African-American mother on a rainy Sunday morning, May 14, 1942, Joe was raised on the mean streets of East Harlem and came up the hard way. He has been an integral part of some of the most important movements in American pop music, from Boogaloo (Latin Soul) and Salsa, to Funk, Disco and even Hip-Hop. As one fan, Mr. Andres Padua of Latin Soul Records put it, “Boogaloo, Latin Soul, Rhythm and Blues, Salsa, Disco, Latin Funk, Latin R&B, Latin Jazz, Rap...What didn't Joe Bataan sing?” Well “didn’t” is in the past tense, but Joe is still very much in the present! Pero, vaya, vamos al pasado, let’s go back, waaay back into the past, and take a closer look at the man.

Willie Colon, musicologist Bob Moll (big Bataan fan!), journalist Max Salazar, and Joe

Joe Bataan and friends

One of the first acts signed to Fania Records, Bataan cut such 60s classics as “It’s A Good Feeling (Riot),” “Ordinary Guy,” and “Subway Joe,” chronicling the daily struggles, joys, sorrows, and loves of ordinary people from El Barrio. One of my all time favorites is “Magic Rose,” with its mysteriously beautiful piano intro, wistful soul lyrics, and majestic stacking of trombones. Bataan’s band was also responsible for some fine Spanish language tracks like “Para Puerto Rico Me Voy” with its exciting rhythm guitar figures, and “Aguanta La Lengua” – a fly combination of vocal riffing and sexy flute.

The Original Bataan Orchestra, c. 1966

‘Mr. New York,’ as he is affectionately known, has always maintained an approachable humility, being warm and accessible. I spent a day with him in February 2006, first paying our respects to the Barretto family at Ray Barretto’s wake, and later traveling around to all of Joe’s old haunts in the Barrio. After reuniting with fellow golden era musicians at Riverside Chapel, Joe reminisced about the 60s and 70s Latin music scene with a chuckle, saying, “We practically lived together on the New York circuit because we always bumped into each other on our way to a gig. The laughter and clowning around between musicians was always a highlight of an evening. Remind me to tell you the Jimmy Sabater experience at the Village Gate with Tito Puente about to perform, were Tito’s bass drum was kicked in on stage before he went on! Louie Ramierez, one of the kings of comedy, was always ready to do some prank, he was quite a jester. Bobby Rodriquez and Eddie Hernandez, when they first started to play, they were so shy! You would never believe it from their performances later in life. I remember vividly Tito Ramos and Tony Rojas [of T’n’T Boys fame] sharing a station wagon after they had received a royalty check. The only problem was how to divide the auto in half so as to share equally in its use. Tony knew how to drive and Tito didn't, especially without his glasses. You had to be there to understand the humor involved while we were growing up. One day Tony couldn't be found and Tito took it upon himself to get behind the wheel and drive to a gig without him. Tito crashed the thing, and Tony had a fit! Today I can still see them arguing down the streets of El Barrio. This partnership created hit records but at what price! 30% of their time was used to create and the other 70% was spent growing up arguing!”

Harlem world - street scene

We then took off to visit his old stomping grounds around 104th Street. ‘Subway Joe’ made sure to say hello to several friends along the way, including a Vietnam Vet working as a doorman on 5th Ave. who knows more about Joe’s music than anyone, including Bataan himself! Cracking an infectious smile after saying good-bye to the doorman, Bataan told me how much his fans had meant to him over the years. When we went for lunch to a little Puerto Rican joint up town, they all knew Joe and seemed very glad to see he was doing well. Later Joe commented to me earnestly, “I will never forget years ago the young lady in a phone booth who stepped out and stopped me as the band was rushing somewhere down the street! She said she was a fan, I said a quick hello and started to take off again when she repeated ‘Don't just acknowledge me for a brief moment and walk on by!’ She stated that I must take the time out to greet her properly because she was a fan and part of my public support. In more ways than one this young lady taught me a valuable lesson in life. Never be too busy for your own good. She told me she had spent her welfare check, which was her last money, on my record. She reminded me what my music meant to her and the impact it had on her as well as others’ lives. I stopped for a long while and learned a lesson in life that I will never forget. Since this experience I have always taken time to greet who ever comes my way when performing, and I guess that is why I am remembered as ‘The Ordinary Guy’.” The honorary title comes from his smash hit with Fania of the same name, a dreamily melancholy Latin Soul ballad that still moves many to tears. Addressing an ex-lover, Bataan plaintively sings: "I don't have thousands to spend, Or a seaside cottage for the weekend, I'm just an ordinary guy, you left behind."

CFamous 50s Spanish Harlem shot (incedentally, it was used on the first Spanish Harlem Orchestra album...)

Joe Bataan - Dragons 1958

We then stopped for a photo at the asphalt park in the Carver Projects on East 104th Street between Park and Madison Avenues, where the cover for Joe’s second album "Riot!" was shot in 1967. The scene around us was unchanged, though Joe told me with sadness in his voice that many young men from the neighborhood of his youth had strayed back in the day, some of them various members in the original group, and quite a few are no longer among the living. Sitting on the same bench depicted on the cover, Bataan explained, “I am sure there is a name for recreation parks in every city and community but this park was always known as ‘White Park’ because of its decor of white paint around and inside the park. Many group meetings were held at this park as well as some of the greatest romance of puppy love for young teenagers at the time. We couldn't hang out with our girl friends at mom's house so this was the great substitute.” He went on to shed some light on the dangerous game between gangs and the authorities that still dogs ghetto life for inner city youth today: " The housing project was a part of the Carver housing complex. When these projects were built in the late 1950's it began a new era of Nuyoricans in El Barrio which replaced the “Ran Can Can” and Johnny Ray days of music with Little Anthony and the Imperials and Mongo Santamaria. This park area [where the Riot! photo was taken] was the greatest escape route from the police if you were running and didn't want to get caught. Two different jurisdictions presided in law enforcement territory. Regular police could search the perimeter and housing police could search inside the complex. So you can see if you were fast on your feet you could elude the fuzz [by zig-zagging in and out of jurisdictions]. I won track for P.S. 72 Junior High and competed at the Mayor's trophy meet where our team was awarded for being the fastest youngsters in Manhattan. So you can see I was pretty fast on my feet!”

The return to the scene of "Riot" and youthful escapades, winter, 2006 (photo ©2006 Pablo E. Yglesias)

Joe jokes that he is ‘a professor with a degree in Street-ology,’ that he is a ‘soul preacher.’ There is a certain intensity, vulnerability, and grace in Joe’s voice that can transport the listener into realms of the divine. On humanitarian note, he is a man with a mission, and has been giving back to the community not only through song but also by counseling incarcerated youth for many years. In the mid 80s he gave up gigging and concentrated on being a family man, dropping out of the musical rat race. One of his passions was helping his children along in their careers in the martial arts.

The projects...

But who is this mestizo Afro-Filipino anyway? You must travel back in time some 50 years ago to fully understand Mr. New York, when the juke boxes in El Barrio played a mix of doo-wop, R&B, and Latin 45s, from Johnny Ray’s “Cry” and “Crazy For You” by Randy Carlos to Tito Puente’s “Ran Kan Kan” and Alfedito’s “Chinese Mambo.” In the 50s and early 60s, Joe and the Barrio kids escaped their rough surroundings by slipping into a cool movie theater, enjoying macho Westerns and flashy musicals with Genn Miller and Eddie Duchin, though “it wasn't until West Side Story that I began to get excited” recalls Bataan. He set the scene for me in this evocative email:

“I grew up in El Barrio on 104th street in Spanish Harlem but it was mixed back in the 1950s when I was eight years old. The summer time was very hot in July and very cold in December. I grew up on 14th street 119 east 104th street between Lexington and Park. I still remember the guys on the block. These were exciting times only because there was always something to do like hang out on the stoop or the corner candy store listening to the jukebox play those great songs. I was the only Mestizo in my block because it was a mixed neighborhood of Latinos, Blacks, and some Whites [i.e., immigrants like Italians and Jews]. Most of our disagreements were settled with our hands one on one during this era. The summer nights were hot as we stood by the candy store listening to the jukebox play our favorite songs.”

The "Poor Boy" Joe hams it up a bit for the camera on this early Fania LP - but the message is clear - he is from the streets and he is full of soul!

Joe Bataan and his homies Lil’ Angelo, Tun-Tun, Chickie, Puchi, little Henry Negro, Junior, Ismael, Carlo, Tito & Tony, and Mambo Henry soaked up all these sounds on the stoop or at Gitch’s candy store on 103 and Lex. Unlike the cast of the Broadway play, he was really in a gang (as Andres Padua succinctly put it: “During his teenage years, Bataan associated himself with street gangs”). When they weren’t involved in gang conflicts over girls or turf, they would sing doo-wop harmonies in the famous Love Hall on Park Ave. According to Joe, “This place was used by everyone who knew of the echo chamber that existed in this magic hallway, we would practice whenever we got the chance. The neighborhood guys would use garbage cans and tin cans for instruments like the conga. Beer bottles were used as clave with a stick striking it. One guy would sing or riff and Mambo Henry would dance and it was show time in El Barrio on 104th street.” Recalling those heady days of yesteryear, Joe said: “In the ghetto us kids made our own kind of music that reflected our own racial mix on the block. I guess growing up poor there were only two avenues one could take to escape our environment in El Barrio: sports or music.”

Joe and the guys stylin' up on the roof, El Barrio, mid-60s - most of them still needed to be home for supper because their moms would give them Hell if they broke curfew!

In the early 60s, Latinos of the older generation laid the foundation for what became known as bugalú, cross-pollinating Latin with soul and jazz, spawning crossover hits like Mongo Santamaria’s “Watermelon Man” (a cover of Herbie Hancock’s tune) and Ray Barretto’s ultra-funky “El Watusi.” The outrageous stage antics and rock inflections of early La Lupe tunes led her to be labeled “The Queen of Latin Soul.” Meantime, The Joe Cuba Sextet’s suave slow burning “To Be With You” was an early example of an English lyric, while a little later Johnny Colon’s “Boogaloo Blues” and Cal Tjader’s “Soul Sauce” were among the most influential on the younger generation (soul sauce is salsa!). This was the musical milieu that spawned Joe Bataan’s group – indeed, several members of Joe’s group had jumped ship while he was incarcerated and joined Johnny Colon (only to go back with Joe after he was released) – but that’s a long, complicated story, and we are getting ahead of things a bit. Suffice it to say that practically every street corner in the Bronx, Harlem, and parts of Brooklyn had an aspiring group of Latino, Black, and Mestizo kids looking for something to do, and so music called many with its Pied Piper allure.

Ray Barretto y su Orchestra - La Charanga Moderna (containing the ground-breaking crossover hit "El Watusi")

Mongo Santamaria - Watermellon Man (the original version on the original album)

Joe Cuba Sextet - Wanted dead or Alive - Bang, Bang!

Cal Tjader - Soul Sauce

Johnny Colon - Boogaloo Blues

Hector Rivera - At The Party

T'n'T Boys - Sex Symbols (Tito Tamos & Tony Rojas) - a couple of jokers - one of them is a preacher now.

Ralph Robles' conquering boogaloo anthem "Taking Over" from the Fania LP "Ralph Robles Was Here" was ironic in a way - taking over what? Judging by the abum cover, they were laying claim to vacant lots, derelict streets, a few plantains, and a future of drug addiction...the graffiti mural style says 'Ralph was here': the important notion of marking your space with your tag - graf writing was an early component to the concept of the hip-hop life.

In the pre-historic days before the Civil Rights era penetrated youth consciousness in Spanish Harlem, Joe felt more allegiance to his gang than his race. As he explains, “I was the only mestizo on my block because it was a mixed neighborhood of Latinos, Blacks, and some Whites. We grew up poor but were happy most of the time with our mothers providing food on the table. No one in the neighborhood owned a piano and TV sets were just coming around to all the households. Radio was our prime source of information and entertainment. We lived by it and worshiped it daily. Every Saturday morning we would listen to the Top 40 Hit Parade and sing along with the magazine in our hands.” Though some kids used ‘zip’ guns and knives, “most of our disagreements were settled with our hands one-on-one during this era. They were called ‘fair fights.’”

Signed photo - out take from "Riot" LP photo sessions (thanks Joe Bataan)

"Riot" - the album - Izzy Sanabria's bold design and Bataan's grounbreaking music...

After a stint in Coxsackie State Prison on a stolen car charge, Nitollano wisely chose music, teaching himself piano (Eddie Palmieri was his “man”) and dance moves. Around 1965, some friends had joined Joe’s fellow Commerce High School classmate Johnny Colon’s new group in Joe’s absence, and when Bataan checked them out at a rehearsal he was impressed by their trombone sound. Joe had recently mastered the rudiments of piano, and was definitely wanting to get his buddies together for a band. Johnny was afraid Joe would poach friends like Milton Cardona, Tito Ramos and Tony Rojas from his orchestra so he angrily kicked Joe out of the rehearsal space. Joe was from the streets and was not one to back down or give up on his dream, and of a combination of ambition, youthful machismo, and perhaps good old revenge he assembled his own rival band. It was promoter Federico Pagani that inadvertently gave him his stage name after Bataan handed him someone else’s business card that had ‘Joe’ printed on one side and Joe’s handwritten first name “Bataan” on the other. After getting several Latin music heavies like George Goldner and Morris Levy into a bidding war for a contract by courting both parties simultaneously, Joe escaped the mess he had made by settling with new upstarts Pacheco and Masucci’s fledgling Fania label, debuting in 1966 with the LP "Gypsy Woman." The cover shows Bataan’s beautiful first wife as the ‘gypsy’ in the title song. Joe was not someone to trifle with, being fiercely independent, always producing and arranging his material, so when he noticed flamboyant designer Izzy Sanabria getting a little too friendly with her at the photo shoot for the album, he gave Izzy a warning to stay away from his wife, and decided to art direct all his Fania covers thence forth. As for many socially conscious youth of the times (like Bob Marley), the Impressions and their lead song writer Curtis Mayfield made a strong impression on Joe, and it was their tune "Gypsy Woman" that gave Joe his first taste of success. To hear one of Bataan’s biographers tell it, the story of his breakthrough went like this:

“The title track of “Gypsy Woman” was first aired by radio DJ Dick "Ricardo" Sugar, and became an instant hit in New York's Latin community. Ironically, Mr. Bataan had initially written a version of the song with Spanish lyrics for the band's co-lead vocalist Joe Pagan to perform. It didn't seem to work, so he started singing the song himself in English at gigs and received an enthusiastic reaction. The late George Goldner, boss of the Cotique label (a rival of Fania at the time), disapproved of Bataan's rendition and advised him against recording it. Clearly, Joe's refusal to take this advice proved to be the sounder judgment.” (by Andres Padua, www.thelatinsoulshow.com)

Gypsy Woman - the first LP

Young, gifted, and brown, Bataan and others were searching for a NYC sound that expressed who they were, the wonderful mixture of cultures encountered in daily life in Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx. The sound was in their heads but nobody in the younger generation had really articulated it yet. As Andy Padua states, “Mr. Bataan actually created the music as it should have sounded.” And he was right! In the music of Bataan, Johnny Colon, Pete Rodriguez, The Lebron Brothers, The T’n’T Boys and Willie Colon, the dual trombones and wild piano guajeos of Eddie Palmieri’s conjunto La Perfecta suddenly collided with Black America. Shing-a-ling or bugalú was essentially the cha-cha-cha with a strong backbeat borrowed from the soul sound of Motown and Stax records, featuring bi-lingual lyrics. The guitars, hand claps, tambourine and brass of Booker T & the MGs, and the expressive gospel and blues inflected vocals of Otis Redding and Sam & Dave’s new soul music combined with Cuban son montuno in jams like “At The Party” by Hector Rivera and “Takin’ Over” by Ralph Robles. Joe Cuba’s thrilling “Bang Bang” was the first record to really express this mixture with the same excitement as was happening live in the clubs in the mid-60s. Though of an older generation, the members of the J.C. Sextet were regular performers at the Apollo, Audubon, and other ballrooms where young African-American crowds danced to both soul music and Latin. When Jimmy Sabater, timbalero and vocalist with Joe Cuba, saw the reactions of American Blacks to certain beats the sextet was laying down, he went with it and incorporated some of the audience's spontaneous shout-outs (“he freaks, she freaks!” was later changed to “Beep, Beep!” by record label execs fearful of radio censorship). The “club” atmosphere they tried to recreate on the record was provided by several young boys related to the band, and was not adoring female fans as may be supposed by the sound of it.

Harlem's mighty temple of sound, The Apollo Theater - no stranger to the Latin orchestras of the day...

Joe Bataan's great "Subway Joe" album that spoke of common urban experiences and featured the relentless blatting 'bones and stomping bluesy piano that signaled the beginning of a short-lived but exciting time for Latino youth in El Barrio. Brilliant cover layout by Izzy Sanabria, infared film shot by psychedelic snapper Marty Topp...

Joe Bataan entered into the fray and broke big, largely through friends and family members bombarding radio stations with repeated requests for songs like “Subway Joe.” Bataan’s orchestra of teenagers had that brash gritty brass sound coupled with R & B stylings that made it a prime candidate for crossover success…but that larger market never really emerged while Joe was at Fania.

Bataan, Masucci, Wife, and band member with gold record, 60s

The album that should have crossed over for Bataan while he was at Fania - all in engish, great sweet soul & funk numbers, with some snappy arrangements by Marty Sheller - ghetto fabulous stylin' on the cover!

This was just reissued in limited digipack format by Emusica - go get it!

Joe Bataan's late 60s band was incredible - just listen to the Mr. New York & the East Side Kids album!

Joe's parting shot for Fania, with a very ill gangsta massacre scene and the best cover version of "Shaft" ever ('¡callate la boca!!') - definitely worth seeking out (thanks Knox).

While still under contract to Fania, Joe took over the now highly-acclaimed but short-lived Ghetto Records label in 1970. George Febo had recently founded it but suddenly had to leave the scene under mysterious circumstances, handing the reigns over to an unprepared Bataan. According to Andres Padua of The Latin Soul Show, Joe was working as an in-house producer at Ghetto, and ushered such locally successful songs as the ballad "Tender Love (and Sweet Caresses)" by Paul Ortiz Y La Orquesta Son in 1972. The tune was remade in 1992 by Latin Pop Salsa artist Tito Nieves. Joe confirmed to me his role as a producer for Febo while still under contract to Fania; I also spoke with designers Izzy Sanabria and Charlie Rosario, who did some great covers for Febo (check the Eddie Lebron for example) and they remember Bataan’s involvement. It was Izzy that came up with the humorous line drawing of an alley cat playing the trash cans like a pair of congas that became the company’s groovy logo. Charlie’s whacky art school painting of rainbows and ears must have tickled the label owner’s fancy, because he authorized an expensive gatefold layout, not something that every struggling indie label was able to do at the time. Again, fans like Padua love this tiny New York imprint: “Ghetto Records was indeed an extraordinary record label. The salsa from this label was not the ordinary salsa people were accustomed to. It was sort of like Latin Salsa Blues, with rock style electric and soul rhythm vocals. That's the best I can describe it.” Joe Acosta was another Ghetto artist that seemed destined for success, with this unorthadox Latin Soul approach. Despite having many fine releases that are now collector’s items with cult status (like “Papo Felix Meets Ray Rodriguez” and Orquesta La Fantástica “All Ears/From Ear To Ear”), Joe had to bail out eventually because the financial burden was too great. Check out Padua’s Latin Soul Records for some excellent reissues of these obscure classics.

Izzy Sanabria's totally dope logo for Ghetto Records - George Febo did not know how lucky he was!

The ultra rare Eddie Lebron album on ghetto; amazing "trash & graffiti" cover by Izzy Sanabria! the artwork that was used on the logo appears much larger on the album's back side.

The awesome front side (or is it "top side") of the Fantastica album that reads "All Ears" - one of Charlie Rosario's early psychedelic art school paintings, now a stone collector's item. The inside label gives a different title to the album: "From Ear To Ear." Charlie always referred to it as "All Ears," though since George Febo disappeared, who can really say. Most people stick with the title as it is printed on the record label. Check out this great cover & weep (thank you Josh at Mystery Train Records, Amherst, MA). Of course you can get it as a CD from HardSalsa.com...

The Op Art cover for Papo Felix and Ray Rodriguez's album might make you think it was a record of abstract Moog music or space age batchelor pad grooves, but it's not - a solid garage salsa & Latin soul outing that is HARD to find (HardSalsa.com)!

Towards the tail end of his time with Fania, Joe had worked on a very ambitious musical suite that was over 10 minutes long with several different but interrelated segments to it. The jam incorporated funk and salsa with psychedelic touches; it dealt with the scourge of drug addiction that was plaguing the ghettos around him in the late 60s/early 70s. Masucci was not willing or ready to release such seemingly controversial product, so the tapes were shelved. If it had come out at the time it surely would have made a big splash, or at least been influential along the lines of Harlem River Drive or Abraxas by Santana. Again, Bataan was a man thinking outside of the box, ahead of his time. Only the future can tell if those tapes surface again. Joe also told me that at the height of his early popularity he had rented out Yankee Stadium for a big blowout concert, well before Fania records did, and that Masucci got the idea from him to bring the emerging salsa scene to large arena format. Unfortunately for Bataan and his group, the scheduled show was rained out so he had to cancel, at a great financial loss to himself (he had booked and paid for it himself), and causing intense disappointment for his fans. This was just one of the setbacks that Joe had to deal with over the years, and according to him it was beginning to add up.

Joe: "Sports or music - that was our ticket out of the Ghetto..."

Joe and his records...

Finally free in 1973 from a distasteful financial situation at Fania where Joe felt he was not getting paid what was promised, Bataan signed up with the Cayre Brothers (Joe and Kenny) of the Caytronics and Mericana record labels in 1974. Joe called his first record with Mericana "Salsoul," and when the Cayre brothers sold the rights to the LP (and any other product for a 5 year period) to CBS Records for $100,000.00, they used the money to start the seminal disco label Salsoul, utilizing Joe’s own handy catchphrase for the special musical mix in the streets of NYC.

Joe Cayre

Vince Montana, Jr. and Ken Cayre with their Salsoul Jackets - fly!

Joe turned the Cayres, especially the younger Ken, onto the new DJ scene by taking them to the discoteques. Bataan told me he knew and respected all the mixers and DJs, from the great Vince Montana Jr. to Larry Levan and Walter Gibbons. "Salsoul," like the word indicates, was an innovative mix of Latin, soul, jazz, and funk, bringing together East and West Coast musicians for a fresh new sound that had a wide appeal, and is still beloved equally by Lowriders in California and rare groove aficionados in New York, Madrid, and London. It really is the basis for the Latin Hustle and other forms of mid-70s party music. Bataan also coined the equally melifluous term 'Laso' (a name of an album he produced) - essentially the same thing: Latin + Soul = Joe Bataan's sound. The cover of "Salsoul" sported an intricate and humorous cityscape illustration masterfully executed by Afro-Cuban designer Steve Quintana III. Steve told me that he worked very hard on the painting but that the “Cayre guys said it needed Joe’s face on it, so I air-brushed that in at the last possible minute. I didn’t want to do it but they told me I had to. I lost the original artwork in a fire.”

Joe Bataan's "SalSoul" LP on the Mericana label - the title that inspired the Cayre Brothers to name their fledgling club music label after Joe's coining of a new term for the hybrid New York genre that he helped create - cover art by the great Afro-Cuban artist and Santero holy man, Steve Quintana III

The first proper Salsoul release, Bataan’s "Afro-Filipino" blew everyone’s minds in 1975 with a hot funk instrumental of Gil Scott-Heron’s ghetto life epic, “The Bottle,” featuring David Sanborn’s scorching sax (before he got all soft - he blew on Bowie's records too). There were other uncredited musicians on there including one of the Brecker Brothers. Subsequently, Joe was an integral part of the label’s move towards disco and the 12” record, waxing many booty-shaking jams for the dancing crowd as the 70s drew to a close. The Mericana/Salsoul labels also released quite a few fine salsa and traditional Cuban albums to boot, including seminal records by Cachao, Libre, Saoco, and the two ground-breaking LPs by Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorquino.

The LP "Afro-filipino" with the great version of Gil Scott-Heron's proto-Latin Funk jam "The Bottle"

The LP label for "Salsoul"

The incredibe double LP "Grupo Folklorico" - thanks to the vision of Rene Lopez and Andy Gonzalez, we have such classics as Virgilio Marti's "Cuba Linda" - thanks to Yogui Rosario, we have a great album design!

The great first Saoco album, with cover art by the band's singer and co-leader, Henry Fiol

Always with his ear to the street, Bataan was hip to the Bronx and Harlem block parties where DJs were mixing breaks in songs and chanting over the PA system, and from working a lot with inner city youth, he was exposed to the nascent hip-hop scene with it’s youthful MCs and mix-masters on the turntables. Bataan was also part of the emerging disco scene where he hung with Larry Levan, June Bug, and other seminal 70s dance DJs and re-mixers who loved his music. Early in 1979 Joe cut the first rap song in the studio, allegedly taped several months before the Fatback Band released “King Tim III Personality Jock,” which is generally acknowledged as the first rap record. However, it was not until The Sugarhill Gang‘s “Rapper’s Delight” became a massive hit that a label would release his single. In 1977-8, Bataan was working with youths in the projects and witnessed a team of teen MCs named ‘Jeckyl & Hide’ rhythmically chanting rhymes over records and the handclaps of an enthusiastic crowd. What was this new thing going down Joe asked himself? It kind of made him think of the radio jocks but it was happening in the ‘hood in the parks and projects, not over the air. Impressed by what he saw, Joe invited the kids to a recording session for a song he dubbed “Rap-O-Clap-O” (“because that’s just what they were doing in the Community Center!”). Bataan had wanted as yet unknown producer Arthur Baker recently relocated from Boston to work with him on various projects, including an extended disco mix based on the song “To Be Real,” featuring this apparently new form of vocalizing not yet officially called “rap.” He told Baker, “Someone’s gonna make a million dollars out of this.” The young MCs never showed up to the recording date, so Nitollano did the rap himself and produced the session with the arrangements of Latin Jazz great Marty Sheller, and the rest is (un-sung) history. Not too many people know this aspect of the hip-hop story, but it’s la verdad. Mestizos, Latinos, and jazzbos were doin’ it right alongside the Kurtis Blows and DJ Hollywoods back in the day – just check the 12” single “Baya Latinos” from 1979 by P.J. La Boy on Etcetera Records straight outta N.J. for instance – and that was by a Puerto Rican, right around the time Joe was getting into hip-hop. In fact, the Puerto Rican timbalero Jimmy Delgado, who is a popular salsa orchestra leader artist now, played on Blow’s seminal “The Breaks.” Tito Puente himself was no stranger to hip-hop, having played on a Sugerhill 12” early on. Breakdancing has much in common with afro-cuban rumba, Afro-Puerto rican bomba dance moves, Brazilian capoeira, and Old South buck-dancing, so it came as no surprise to Joe that this youth expression was taking hold. No wonder it cought on in El Barrio - just ask old-school Puerto Rican DJ Charlie Chase - it was not about your ethnic or racial background, it was really a shared ghetto experience. And kiddies, this was all way before Kid Frost, Cypress Hill, or Mellow Man Ace, let alone Fat Joe, Tego Calderon, or Pitbull.

"Rap-O-Clap-O" 12" disco single

"Mestizo" - the album that eventually contained the hit single "Rap-O-Clap-O" - the back has a shot of Joe on T.V. in Europe!

Showin' them how it's done!

True, the beats of a lot of these early records were more disco, and the rhymes were pretty basic and watered down compared to what was being developed live in the clubs, but the songs were popular to a certain extent. “Rap-O-Clap-O” was a huge hit in Holland. Bataan even did a rap throw down over the phone after Kurtis Blow challenged him to a ‘duel of words’ on the radio in Europe while “Rap-O-Clap-O’ was number 1. Joe feels he ‘won’ the competition with the Blowster because he was lucky enough to have a newspaper with him for inspiration. As it was over the phone and Blow was not in the room with him, it never got out that Joe was using a ‘cheat sheet’! Bataan still chuckles about that one today.

Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks" that featured Latin percussion by Afro-Nuyorican salsero Jimmy Delgado

Early Latin Rap 12" single by P. J. LaBoy, "Baya Latinos" - actually a pretty cool little record (thanks Academy Records, NYC)

It has been a lot of years since the heady days of Studio 54, Latin Quarter, and Paradise Garage and the mega success of “Rapper’s Delight,” but Señor Nitollano is still in good shape, with a sharp memory and a barrel full of stories to share, some of them not for general consumption. After his last Salsoul release in the early 80s, many fans asked “where did Joe go – is he a ghost?” no sir – he devoted the next 20 years to counseling incarcerated youth. Suffice it to say that he is a man with his dignity and pride intact, largely because of his indomitable spirit, faith in family and God, and his immeasurable strength of character. He not only took inspiration from his ghetto community, he also gave back to it, seeking to do what he could to counter the insidious effects of poverty and predjudice that still keep our inner city youth down. Staying out of the music game for a good couple of decades may have a little something to do with his peace of mind, too.

Joe and his wonderful wife...

Joe in a recent concert, still singing soulfully with a Latin feel...

Why is the time ripe for the return of Mr. New York? No doubt because he represents a vital link with the past and yet still sounds fresh. If Wycleff Jean sampled some classic Bataan Latin Soul for the first Fugees’ album, then the hour must be now. Perhaps because kids sense that bugalú was the rap and reggaeton of the day, and Joe embodies that multicultural mix, young musicians like Daniel Callás and Andrés Levin (of Yerba Buena fame) want to work with him. In a way a parallel can be drawn between the Latin bugalú and today’s youth rage reggaeton because the phenomenon represents a younger Latin generation’s ‘creolization’ of another New World African Diaspora sound (US soul in the 60s, Jamaican reggae now). In both cases, Latinos bring their own traditions to bear on an English-speaking music from the ghetto to make it their own, purposefully differentiating it from the previous generation’s music (i.e. mambo in the past, salsa now). This is exactly what ‘Subway’ Joe Bataan did years ago, and it’s what Yerba Buena and Daddy Yankee are doing now. Currently, many older musicians dismiss the youth music as childish or watered down, and this was the case back in the day as well, but that didn’t stop even Tito Puente from cutting the odd boogaloo track. Today, old guard soneros of salsa Ismael Miranda and Andy Montañez have joined the trend with their smash reggaeton hit “Se fue y me dejo.”

Joe Bataan and Band

Joe is currently experiencing a comeback, especially in Madrid, Barcelona, L.A., and New York!

Not one to obsess over who came first or getting credit for all he’s done in his many lives, Mr. Bataan Nitollano remains secure of his abilities and his contribution to American music, saying “The Lord has blessed me and I am on a mission; I do not know what He has in store for me, but my time to give back is now!” With the recent CDs Call My Name and The Message, and avid fans among the West Coast Mexican and Asian Pacific American communities, as well as in NYC, Puerto Rico, the UK, Spain, and Japan, The Ordinary Guy is poised to bring his extraordinary message of “Peace, Friendship, Solidarity” to a new generation, as well as to the older gente del pueblo who never forgot him in the first place.
© 2006 Pablo Ellicott Yglesias

Joe Bataan is still 100% fabulous in concert!

As of this posting, Joe is looking forward to a series of gigs in Europe and recording a new album in Spain. Keep an ear open for further news of Mr. New York!

Joe on the job counseling incarcerated youth.

Joe Bataan CD Reviews

(Vampisoul Records, Spain, 2005)

Joe Bataan is back, voice and spirit in tact! Mr. New York brings his exciting mix of hard funk, smooth soul, sexy disco, and Latino salsa vibes to the young generation through his fabulous collaboration with up and coming musician/producer Daniel Callás. Call My Name sports a groovy retro cover, updating the classic Nuyorican bugalú with the contemporary raw garage sounds of indie rock and the neo-funk of the Desco/Daptone sound. This is a record for blasting caliente block party mobile sound systems, or lazy hot afternoons hanging on the stoop, watching dope chicas pass by, doo-wopping coros like “¡Que Chevere!” as the hydrant cools the niños on the corner. Fatback organ, dreamy synth burbles, gutbucket trap drumming, pounding congas and cow bells, guitars with wah-wah, tripped out dubby echo, fuzz, and sitar effects will all remind you of ‘fros, bellbottoms and platforms, but in a healthy way. Jams like “Chick-a-Boom,” “I’m The Fool,” and “Keep The Change” will most definitely make you move your culito. Callás first met Bataan at a concert a few years ago at the Lower East Side’s historic Nuyorican Poets Café. He had composed the song “Cycles of You” with Joe’s vocals in mind; the fit eventually proved to be perfect, though Bataan wasn’t sure at first, uneasy with taking a chance performing something he had not written or produced himself. Good thing he did! Enlisting the help of bandmates Michael Lo (guitar), Steve Lay (bass), and Jonathan Nigro (drums), Callás sought out the engineering expertise of Gabe Roth, guru of the wholly analog approach to funk that spawned acts like The Daktaris, Antibalas, Sharon Jones & The Dapkings, The Sugarman 3, et al. Despite sporting the trappings of 70s music like War, Mandrill, and Jimmy Castor, the album holds up very well to repeated listening because it is fresh, uncompromising, honest, and with Subway Joe testifying on the mic, 100% salsoul.

JOE BATAAN freaturing The Raza All-Star Band
(I.T.P./Jo-Bat Records, USA, 2006)

The Message is a wonderful CD that combines new studio and live recordings from California with some rare and classic gems from the past. This CD has a West Coast flavor and look, a Low Rider, Oldies Jam sound to it that would fit in sandwiched between Ralfi Pagan and El Chicano, with a little Malo on the side. Lonnie Jordan of seminal LA Latin Funk band War on keyboards, Sal Rodriguez of War on drums, and Bobby Loya of Tierra on trumpet help Joe deliver some tasty treats like “Chicana Lady” and “Good Ole Days.” On live jams like “Ordinary Guy” and “I Wish You Love” Bataan proves that he still has the voice, and is quite an entertainer to boot. While Fania classics like Riot, Subway Joe, and St. Latin’s Day Massacre, and booty shakers like Salsoul, Afro-Filipino, and Mestizo have assured his place in Latin Soul history, this new release proves that Joe is not a trembling relic behind glass, but a vital force who still has so much more to give.

Various Artists freaturing Joe Bataan
(World Music Network, UK, 2007)

As George Clinton famously said, “funk used to be a bad word,” and like the blues, the Cuban son used to be associated (by the White ruling class) with the ‘lower classes’ and was seen as uncivilized, over-sexualized music, so it took a number of years for the form to ‘crossover’ and be ‘assimilated.’ Not necessarily a good thing, the result being disco (with which the Latinos also had a lot of involvement, i.e. the Latin Hustle). Though funk has long been out of the doghouse, many people still don't think of Latin music when it comes to James Brown style beats. This is an unfortunate misconception because Latinos have always been funky, it just depends on your perspective of what constitutes the funk. Emphasis on groove, sexual innuendo, rawness, complex counter rhythms, it’s all there in your salsa, cumbia, merengue. From the sweaty son montuno grooves of Arsenio Rodriguez in the 50s, to the bouncy bugalú of Joe Cuba in the 60s, from the largely Chicano led Latin-rock bands like Santana, Malo, and Azteca, to the more soul-inflected groups like Tower of Power and Cold Blood, and from Cuba, the loping songo beat of Los Van Van and the way-out fusion of Irakere in the 70s, to the kitchen sink break-beat champeta of Colombia's Wganda Kenya in the 80s, La Raza has consistently come up with nastay funk, but not perhaps readily identifiable as such to the outsider. Of course funk and Latin music have been inter-twined almost since birth, due to common roots in Africa and the Diasporic experience in the New World; Latin has not only taken from funk however – it goes both ways - funk has taken liberally from Latin, allowing Latino sounds to enter American consciousness through the back door as it were. From ‘Louie Louie’ to ‘Inner City Blues,’ Latin brass and bass, beats and melody, it’s all there bubbling just under the surface of American Black music. What gives “Brick House” its irresistible syncopated counter beats? Why would James Brown attempt to do a salsa version of one of his old hit “Please, Please, Please” on his 1974 album, Hell? Where, ultimately, did Bo Diddley’s ‘beat’ come from? What is it about the Isley’s “Twist and Shout” that sounds like “Guantanamera”? And why did Prince, mister one-man band multi-instrumentalist, rely so heavily on Sheila Escovedo for Latin chops? The answer is not something to over-intellectualize, my brothers and sisters – it’s in the música, it’s in the mezcla (mix).

At first, it seemed like the notion of putting together a mix of Latin Funk might be an uphill battle. Some of the more obvious choices, like IKV or Dark Latin Groove, are either now defunct or on major international labels that remain out of reach for licensing.
That said, I have to admit it came as a pleasant surprise when Phil Stanton of World Music Network confessed that he had been wanting to make a contemporary Latin Funk compilation for quite some time, despite the seemingly marginal aspect of the subject matter or difficulty with getting the best material. I told him that right now is the perfect time for this kind of special mix, as many independent, alternative Latin musicians are exploring the crossroads of funk and their own Hispanic traditions, and I am very thankful to the folks at Rough Guide for giving me the green light once again. As I argue below, Latin Funk is a subject worthy of study because it goes to the core of New World identity and experience, as well as being symptomatic of who we all are in this hybrid, globalized society. Now I had convinced Phil; it was another thing to assemble a decent compilation that expressed that diversity of experience and melding of identities.

Putting together a mixtape is like curating a group art show – you are re-contextualizing the discrete works of various different artists, gathering elements together for a purpose that takes them out of their original environment, so the art is now arranged to form a new perspective. And while you may choose to put some older works next to newer ones, it’s the juxtaposition and organizational concept that breathes fresh life into the old and enhances the new. This allows for new definitions and widened horizons.

In the case of putting together a flow of contemporary Latin-influenced funk, the task was to find common threads as well as finding a way to cast a different light on some received notions of what constitutes funky music. For some guiding signposts on this journey, I kept three basic principals in mind:

1) Since funk came about as a distinct musical genre when James Brown decided to change the emphasis from the back beat (one-two-three-four) to the downbeat (one-two-three-four), I would make darn sure the drum and bass were “on the one.” You can’t fake the funk: lots of grooves, where the beat was the melody, would be essential!
2) Where possible, I wanted a hybrid form where the syncopated Caribbean beat of the clave (one-two-three-one-two for the son, one-two-one-two-three for the cha-cha-cha), or various basic characteristics of Latin music (piano montunos, brass hits, Spanish lyrics, percussion techniques), would be present in some way – the more the better!
3) Most important was the idea that, as George Clinton said, “nothing is good unless you play with it” – in other words the music on my mixtape would have to be playful and able to dance it’s way out of it’s constrictions (a notion again from P-Funk).

I think this collection of contemporary Latino funk updates the Latin Soul sounds of seminal 70s groups like Mandrill, Café, and Black Sugar by putting a bright new tropical spin on this little known sub-genre. Artists like veteran Latin Soul man Joe Bataan, Miami's Spam Allstars, Brooklyn's José Conde y Ola Fresca, renaissance man William ‘Quantic’ Holland, and Up, Bustle & Out from the UK/Mexico, among others, are sure to make you shake your rump to the funk - but this time with a slice of chili pepper and a shot of rum!

Joe Bataan – Joe Bataan (real name Bataan Nitollano), Afro-Filipino vocalist and pianist, is an innovator and genius in the hybrid world of New York Barrio music. He was at the forefront of the bugalú genre on Fania records in the 60s, coined the term Salsoul (Salsa + Soul) that gave birth to the pioneering record label of the same name, spent the 70s turning out wicked Latin Funk, and even recorded one of the first hip-hop 12” singles, ‘Rap-O-Clap-O,’ in 1979. On this tune from his recent collaboration with Daniel Callás on Vampisoul Records, you’ll hear the warm analog retro sounds of gutbucket trap drumming, fatback organ, Latin electric piano, pounding congas, and James Brown chicken-scratch guitars. This may remind you of afros, bellbottoms, and hot days on the street with the fire hydrant open full blast, and that’s just as it should be, because with Daniel and Joe, everything is chévere, que chévere (totally groovy, cool).