afropunk exclusive: joe bataan, “king of latin soul,” reflects on growing up in new york, being afro-filipino, and surviving the streets and in the jungles of the music business
By Sound Check
November 13, 2015
“My father was Filipino, my mother was African American, and the culture I grew up with was Puerto Rican,” said Joe Bataan (né Bataan Nitollano), 72, who was born and raised in El Barrio, also known as Spanish Harlem or East Harlem, in New York City. As a troubled youth, Bataan spent three years in prison in the early 1960s, which gave him the fuel to pursue music. Building on the styles of Latin boogaloo and doo-wop and later infusing funk and salsa music in his repertoire, Bataan —dubbed the “King of Latin Soul”— has released 17 albums since forming his first band in 1965 with records like Gypsy Woman (1967), Riot! (1968), Salsoul (1973), Afrofilipino (where he included a rendition of Gil Scott Heron’s “The Bottle”; 1975), Mestizo (1980), Young, Gifted & Brown (2004), and King of Latin Soul (2009), along with the iconic song “Rap-O Clap-O” (1979), one of the first rap songs ever recorded. (“Just clap your hands, everybody. Everybody, come on, clap your hands. You can ring my bell, everybody…” Yes, that one.)
By Joann Natalia Aquino, AFROPUNK Contributor
To make way for his 73rd birthday celebration on November 14th (the day before his actual birthday) at West Gate Lounge in Nyack, New York, Mr. Bataan and I met at East Harlem Cafe on 104th Street and Lexington Avenue —down the block from where he grew up— to talk about his memories of New York, being Afro-Filipino, and surviving the streets and in the jungles of the music business.
What was New York like for you growing up?
It was very close knit — everybody knew everybody. Your neighbors raised you. We lived in a multi-ethnic block: there were Jewish, Italian, predominantly Latinos, and there were also African Americans; there might’ve been only three Filipinos in the neighborhood: my father and his friends who would visit from the islands. When I was young, there were less biases in the world than there are now, which may be hard to understand, especially coming from that time. But growing up in East Harlem in Manhattan, I was a minority and didn’t know it until someone wrote about it and said, “Joe Bataan grew up as a minority and he had to exert himself and be aggressive without knowing, that’s why he probably got into a lot of trouble.”
You’ve spoken candidly throughout the years about the troubles of your youth. What was the root of those struggles?
I guess it was my environment. I got into a lot of trouble in school. I was always good with my hands and after a while, I became some sort of a bully to an extent that I would look for problems with people. I always had this confidence where I felt like I could do anything and that’s what led me into trouble, because of the fact that I thought I could do anything and that nothing can stop me. Until I was sent away to prison for five years (but was released after three), which changed my life. While incarcerated, I read everything I could get my hands on. I was determined to utilize that experience as if I had been away at college — and to me, that would not be a waste. While inside, I started to read a lot and I started to come full circle with my being.
What was your path like to becoming a professional musician?
I’m a self-taught musician. While I was in prison, I was studying music and taught myself everything with books. I had sung by ear and had a good ear for music, but I didn’t have the technical skills. So when I came home, I asked the community center director on 106th Street if I could go there every night to play the piano, and by trial and error, I started composing songs. Gradually people started coming to the auditorium to listen to me. One day, I found these kids in the community center. I stuck a knife in the piano and told them, “I’m the leader of the band. If you listen to me, I’ll take you to heights you’ve never heard of before.” They listened, nobody argued with me, and within six months we were making records. Our first record was Gypsy Woman. Our band’s name was Joe Bataan and the Latin Swingers. The boys in the band were 11 and 12 years old. I was about 19 then. We were the youngest band in Latin music.
Your style of music has been called Latin Soul, which, as it sounds, is a mix of soul music with Latin flavor. What and who were your influences?
Frankie Lymon for one, he came out (with the New York City-based group The Teenagers) in the late 1950s at a time when rock and roll was at a tight spot. Of course, Smokey Robinson, one of the greatest poets and writers of our time — he influenced me in my writing. Also Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra.
The jukebox also had a great influence on me. We didn’t have TV and our access for music came from the streets. So when we heard something playing on the jukebox, we relished it because that was our means to get involved with music.
Your father was Filipino who came to the United States in the 1930s from Manila, Philippines by joining the U.S. Navy and your mother was African American, whom he met in Harlem. How did being mixed race shape your way of life and your music?
I went through stages. There was a time where I can be whatever you want me to be. I found out later on that it’s not bad being a lot of things to a lot of people and that’s why my music is welcomed in different parts of the world: it’s a universal sound and it’s in between a lot of things.
In my early 30s, I started looking into my Filipino roots. I looked in the mirror and thought, “Who am I?” That’s when my album Afrofilipino came about.
In 1979, you released the song “Rap-O Clap-O,” one of the first rap songs ever recorded. What is the story behind that song?
I worked in a community center on 110th Street in East Harlem and these kids were coming in and dancing on the floor — they were dancing to the beat, stomping their feet, clapping their hands, and talking on a record. I thought to myself, “What the heck is that?!” So I asked somebody what it was and they didn’t know, there was no name for it then. And I said, “This needs to be on records.” I brainstormed, talked to the kids, borrowed money and went to the studio at RCA. I had everything arranged and the kids didn’t show up. I stood there and thought, “Wow, they dropped a bomb on me.” I had spent all these money. Then I thought, “I wonder if I could do this myself?” There were other kids in the center, so I started to rap and they started to dance, and the rest is history.
What do you think of today’s music?
Music is good. We need it. I love Bruno Mars. I think he’s a talented guy. I like his style and his energy.
What lessons would you impart to aspiring musicians based on what you learned in your fifty years in the music industry?
You have to go and get wet. You have to get experience. If you want to be a doctor, you hang out with doctors. If you want to become a writer, you hang out with writers. So if you want to become a musician, you hang out with musicians.
When you get to the point of meeting with executives, go with confidence. It will leave a different impression. You’re always at a disadvantage when you’re looking for something that the other person has. But if you go there confident and feel that you can walk out without getting anything and you let that be known, it will give you a slight edge.
This will all be in the book I’m writing called Streetology, about how I survived the streets of New York and in the jungles of the music business, and how I came out of it in one piece and still survived.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
You should find God much sooner. It will transform your life. .
What was the moment when you knew that you made it?
Being included in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery was one of the highlights of my life. My picture is in there with Michael Jackson’s. I thought, “Wow, my father would’ve been so proud of me.” Nobody would’ve guessed that the little, runny nose boy who ran down the streets in Spanish Harlem would have his portrait in the National Portrait Gallery. The one who people said was “the most likely to not succeed.” Makes me cry when I think about it, you know.
Joe Bataan is celebrating his 73rd birthday with a performance at West Gate Lounge (26 Route 59 in Nyack, New York) on Saturday, November 14, 2015, at 8pm. For upcoming shows and updates, follow Joe Bataan on Twitter at @JOE_BATAAN.
* Joann Natalia Aquino is a traveling freelance writer covering lifestyle including fashion, food, arts and entertainment, indigenous arts, and the tattoo culture. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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