Salsoul Survivor


By Dennis Cook

“For a long time they couldn’t categorize my music. One day it was Latin, they they’d change me to R&B, then they’d put me in world music. To this day I have to go to different sections to find out what my stuff is,” laughs Joe Bataan, who in the 1960s crafted the pioneering Salsoul style, a blend of Afro-Cuban, Puerto Rican, and South American musical motifs that’s influenced everything from disco to reggaeton. “You always had the typical fight. ‘What is he? He’s Latin! No, he’s black! No, he’s gotta be Filipino!’ What’s the difference? I’m rainbow! I’ll be whatever you want me to be!”

A child of New York’s Spanish Harlem, Bataan started singing doo-wop in the late 1950s. His unique music is partly born of his own mixed heritage. Half Filipino, half African-American, Bataan created a sound that incorporated the heavy piano of Eddie Palmieri, the breathless sweep of Smokey Robinson and the heady drums of Cachao. It earned him cult hits like 1967’s “Gypsy Woman”, the proto hip-hop classic “Rap-O Clap-O” and a frisky disco version of Gil-Scott Heron’s “The Bottle” in 1980. His is a sound born in a heady decade where new combinations, new ways of being, were rampant. Marrying Latin music to English words was similar to what Ray Charles had done mixing secular pop with gospel flavors.

“It was a transition from the old school, like the Mexican going to the Chicano,” Bataan explains. “But it was the Puerto Rican going to the Nuyorican. Most of the third generation Nuyoricans in the city spoke English. A lot of them had followed rhythm and blues for a long time, and they were becoming embedded in New York. And it gave the other audience a chance to really listen because they didn’t understand it when it was done in Spanish. They didn’t understand the language. So you had the blacks coming over, you had the whites, the Jews. They always loved the rhythm but when you gave them that extra flavor of singing so they could understand lyrics, that’s really what got them. And I’m sure that’s what opened the door for Latin music as it is now today.”

Now, back on wax after a 20-year absence, Joe Bataan throws the same dynamite that blew up Latin soul in New York City in the late 1960s. Bataan’s new album, Call My Name, equals past burners (and DJ staples) such as Saint Latin’s Day Massacre and Salsoul, recalling Bataan’s legendary mix of Latin rhythms, rock inflection and creamy R&B that was hugely influential on bands like War, Santana and Gil Scott-Heron. Where has Bataan been? “I guess I had to do a little work with God,” he explains. “I had a little scare, maybe four or five years ago, with a touch of diabetes. It was diagnosed wrong, and I went through all this trauma. They gave me up for being gone. I think God reached down and said, ‘Look, Joe. Stop running away from me. I’m going to give you another chance, but I want you to do something with your life, not just sing. You gotta take on and send a message.’ So, that’s what I’ve been doing the last four years.”

Bataan continues, “I actually started my comeback in 1994, and it was very hectic because I hadn’t sung in maybe 10 years. It took a while to get my voice back and get in shape. I had become a family man. We had gone around the country for 11 years with the kids trying to get them into the Olympics fighting karate. When we got in, we found out it wasn’t our style, it was Tae Kwan Do. So I guess those 11 years went down the drain.”

Ultimately, it took the persistent pursuit of a young songwriter named Daniel Collas to get Bataan back into the studio. “I was playing in Manhattan, and this young kid asked if I’d be interested in recording songs with him. Of course I didn’t pay him much mind at the time because I get a lot of offers like that from people that aren’t really legitimate. I thought he was some fly-by-night kid, but apparently he had saved up his little money and he got a little studio and this is what he wanted to do. So I went to this kid’s garage in Brooklyn, and we recorded these songs. At first I had my apprehensions about him because he was trying to emulate a lot of the songs I’d done in my past, trying to tailor them to me. He didn’t even ask me the keys.”

Collas explains it this way: “This whole project grew out of ‘Cycles of You’, which was a song that I had written with the guitarist and bassist of my band at the time, Easy, around 2001. The chord progression and vocal melody really reminded me of Bataan, and it occurred to me that it wouldn’t be impossible to get him into the studio to do a guest vocal if we ever recorded it. I had met Bataan a few years before at a small, family-reunion-style show at the Nuyorican Poets Café. He not only still sounded great but was also gracious and easy to talk to. After getting the opportunity to do an album from Vampisoul, a Spanish label, I figured the best way to go about it was to do most of the work and have Bataan come sing on it.” Collas acknowledges the pairing was tenuous at first. “I think this was a little weird for him, since he is used to writing and producing most of his own records, but he seemed open to it. “

What Collas and Bataan have come up with for Call My Name echoes vintage recordings but takes them out into open water. Each cut is peppered with humming keyboards, fuzzed out guitars and a slink so salacious the jacket should have a parental warning. The album transports listeners to a bygone New York with richly textured, organic playing. Even the photo of the band on the sleeve could be from a longhaired, wilder era. Collas says, “The rhythm section on this record was a band called TransLove Airways, formed in 2002. We got really tight and developed this great sound that was to me equal parts Heart, Shocking Blue, Brian Auger and Rare Earth. In that picture it’s me and Michael Lo (guitar), Steve Lay (bass), Jonathan Nigro (drums) and my friends from this heavy psychedelic band called Fairchild that contributed the backing vocals on a few songs.”

The album so effectively captures the spirit of Bataan’s heyday, many have a hard time believing it was newly recorded. It conjures a classic vibe all but absent from the so-called soul music of John Legend, Alicia Keys and R. Kelly. “I don’t hear it as necessarily vintage, although that’s been the popular opinion,” Collas comments. “I was really influenced by Gabe Roth’s work: With his wholly analog approach, he’s made some amazing new records that definitely stand up to a lot of older soul records, first with Desco and now with Daptone. So I asked him to engineer Call My Name.” He continues, “Producing a record or making music in general has a lot to do with how you hear music. While I listen to a lot of new music, I find more and more that the stuff I like is reminiscent of my favorite older records. When I was preparing for Call My Name, I listened to a lot of different records from the mid to late 1970s and thought about how they were actually getting the sounds they were getting and how Bataan’s vocal style would fit with them. Because I’m a big fan of Bataan’s work, especially his 1970s and early 1980s albums, which I think most people dismiss, I could put the material into context and make it sound more natural.”

Though the album has been well-received around the world, Bataan and Vampisoul made a conscious decision to not push the album in the U.S. initially, choosing to see what interest emerges stateside. The warm words and growing number of new fans mean a lot to Bataan. “I never had an inkling of how extensive my following was until we got on these computers. Sometimes I sit down and I cry and think, ‘Gee, get out of here. Did they really understand what I was trying to do back then?’ It’s an honor for me to just be remembered by so many people in the different countries I go to.”

Collas’s superb ear and instinct for funky noises has pushed him further into the production game since working with Bataan. It’s a situation he couldn’t be happier about. “As I got more involved with that, I realized that that was really where my head was at, and I decided I would focus more on the producing end of things rather than playing live,” says Collas. “Since then, I’ve formed Embassy Productions with DJ Sean Marquand of Brooklyn’s Brazilian Beat fame, and we were recently in Sao Paulo producing a new album on the legendary Uniao Black, which will be finished by the end of the summer, and as of this writing, we’ve been in the studio with San Francisco glam-soul act Mercy Mercy. Aside from that, I’ve produced several local Manhattan/Brooklyn singers and bands, including the upcoming album from Luke O’Malley, the guitar player in Antibalas.”

For his own part, Joe Bataan seems content to be exactly where his is today. His love of music, singing it sweet and low or hot and juicy, reverberates in every new note. “I’d love to make some money but I’m growing out of that,” observes Bataan. “I’m one of the richest guys in the world—I have my health and my strength and my family. And I know I have to do this work some kind of way. That’s the whole secret. It wasn’t about me and being selfish and growing up wild. I’m glad in my old age I’m finding out I’ve got to give a little. How dare I perform and not leave something? With all the influence I’ve had on generations with my music, I could have done a lot more good for people and the world. On my final day, whatever I do now is dedicated to God and trying to help people.”

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