A Man, Malice, And A Mission
The next time you’re channel surfing through one of those smooth jazz stations and you notice some tasty sampling of Latin percussion don’t be fooled. Chances are, you’re hearing the sounds of a man enmeshed in full-blown musical warfare launching a malicious artillery attack on an unsuspecting percussion rig. But that’s just Pablo Batista, go-to percussionist for some of the biggest names in smooth jazz and R&B, doing his thing.
“I got a little malicia [malice] in me,” Batista says, pronouncing the word like he’s savoring the taste of it. “Malicia is kind of like the ’eye of the tiger,’ so to speak. When I go do a concert, I’m looking at it like a war. I’m getting ready to go into the ring to fight.” But when Batista speaks of the artists he’s worked with, or his family, or any other aspect of his life, his tone changes to one of total humility. “When I get on stage I’m pretty cocky,” he admits. “But I’m pretty timid otherwise. I'm real shy when I meet you in person. But when I get behind my axe …”
Equally capable of producing ambient R&B comps and blistering conga solos, the 44-year-old Batista has spent all of his adult life demonstrating his command of the percussionist’s playbook. The fact is, he’s earned the right to brag a little. Through his 15-year run with the late Grover Washington Jr., the “father of smooth jazz,” to world tours with the likes of Alicia Keys, Kirk Franklin, and Teddy Pendergrass, to sessions with Bono, Zakir Hussain, and Carlos Santana, to the halls of Ivy League colleges where his intensive clinics have inspired the hands and minds of countless percussionists-in-training, Batista has built a personal empire on his passion for rhythm.
“What I do, and what I’ve been very successful at, is being able to give the artist options,” he says. “One of the ways I do that is coming from different traditions as much as I can.”
FOUNDATIONS. It didn’t hurt that Batista grew up steeped in the traditions of Latino music and culture. The youngest of four children by parents who had both immigrated to the U.S. from Puerto Rico, Batista was born and raised in the middle-class community of South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, about 60 miles outside of Philadelphia. Here, day and night, the pulsing, eclectic rhythms of salsa music that spilled from the doorways and windows of the neighborhood's large Latino population found their way into the ears of an impressionable young Batista.
“If you’re Latino, Puerto Rican, Cuban, you listen to salsa. They’re playing congas, guiro, maraca, clave, shekere, and that was right there,” he says. “I remember just saving my money and going down and buying records at Ralph’s Dry Cleaners on Third Street in Bethlehem. He had dry cleaning on one side and records on the other. That was my thing. I was saving up my money for records.” And while he was buying Latin music on vinyl, the classic rock he was hearing on the radio offered a different perspective. “I was raised in America, which is real cool, the melting pot,” he says. “So I was listening to everything from Boston, to AC/DC, to Led Zeppelin, to The Beatles, Elvis — you know, I’ve heard it all, and I’m always listening.”
Batista remembers being nine years old when the drumming bug bit him. “I had really good hands and all of a sudden I just started banging on garbage cans and test tubes at school,” he says. “I just did it, and everybody would always gather around whenever I touched a garbage can. I became like this garbage can player at the Boys Club. It was crazy. Pretty soon I realized I needed to get my hands on some drums.”
One day Batista’s father introduced him to a man named Miguel Candia, with whom he worked at the local steel mill. Candia, as it turned out, was a well-known Puerto Rican percussionist who had been one of Giovanni Hidalgo’s teachers when the conga legend was a young boy. Soon, Batista was going over to Candia’s place every day after school to study percussion.
“That kind of structure helped me develop my tone,” Batista says. “It helped me develop my ear for clave and being able to play in the music. It was a training that helped me later in life.”
It wasn’t until he was in junior high school that Batista finally got his first chance to play in front of a real audience in a little cover band made up of himself and a few high school buddies. It was an experience he’ll never forget. “We played at this club called the Roaring Twenties,” he says. “We invited our mothers to come. Our moms all belonged to the same church. They came up to the bar to come and see us play, and the opening act was a stripper. But it wasn’t a regular stripper. She was really raunchy. I was under-age, and I wasn’t even supposed to be in there. I didn’t know what was going on, and I was on stage and all of a sudden I’m looking at this woman with a robe on and she lays out a blanket in the middle of the floor and she’s got a bag of props. And I’m looking out the side and all of our mothers are sitting at this table, and the music goes on and she does her act, and I almost fell off my seat. My mother covered her eyes. I thought I was going to die,” he says, laughing. “Needless to say, my mother told me I needed to find another profession.”
His mother got her wish a few years later when he enrolled at Temple University. “College was tough for me because I wanted to play the drums,” he says. “And you couldn’t tell me I wasn’t going to make a living at it. I was doing the degree thing for my parents. But it was a great achievement for me to graduate with the class of ’85 at Temple. I really wanted to accomplish that for my people and my family, and I did it. But as soon as I got the paper I was out,” he adds laughing.
While he was at Temple getting ready to graduate with a BFA degree, Batista did an 8-track folkloric rhythm demo that somehow found its way into the hands of Grover Washington Jr. Washington liked what he heard and asked Batista to play on a Jean Carnes album he was producing called Closer Than Close. At that moment Batista’s dream of making a living with drumming became a reality. “It was killer man. All of a sudden I’m just this kid graduating from college, and I’m at the Blue Note with Grover, and Martin Cohen [of LP] is offering me an endorsement, and it’s all happening real fast,” he remembers.
In ’91 Washington brought him on as a full-time member of the band. For the next eight years, Batista toured everywhere with Washington, always learning something new about his craft.
STEPPING INTO THE RING. With experience, comes wisdom, born mostly of trial and error. Batista remembers one incident during a gig with Washington in the hills of Northern California that turned him off his preference for wood drums and flesh heads for good.
"We were sound checking in the afternoon," he says. "It had to be about 95, 97 degrees, on top of a mountain, no humidity, really sunny. We went back to the hotel to get changed, came back to the venue and went on stage. It was about 7:00 o’clock and the temperature had dropped probably 30 degrees.” Batista walked over to his extensive touring rig, which consisted of five congas, two sets of timbales, a set of bongos, and a host of miscellaneous percussion, and was horrified to discover all his drums where soaked with condensation. “Here I am walking on stage, people are going nuts, the MD starts counting it off, and I can almost punch a whole through the conga drum it’s so wet,” he says.
He managed to get through the show by tuning and towel-drying his drums with one hand while playing with the other, all the while trying to keep a smile on his face so the audience wouldn’t know anything was wrong. After that, he made the switch to synthetics and has never had that problem again.
Through the years Batista has developed some essential tricks for keeping himself and his equipment in top form. In addition to healthy doses of Eucerin cream to keep his hands moist, he keeps a heavy gauge nail file on hand to tame the monstrous calluses that develop from playing so much hand percussion. “There’s a lot of dead skin on your calluses and what happens is that there’s no elasticity in your skin," Batista explains. “So when you have a lot of blood flowing it puts pressure on your calluses, and sometimes when you’re playing it feels like you’re playing on glass.” He also does cardio training, jumping rope, and lifting weights, which he says is essential for “having resistance to get through the fight.”
Before going on stage, Batista does stretches and warm-ups to release endorphins, as well as what he calls “mommy and daddy” foot exercises, which are a heel-heel, toe-toe type of thing. “I’ve developed quite strong time as a result of playing a lot of quarter-notes with the foot,” he says. (On his rig, Batista uses kick pedals linked to a low and a high cha-cha, as well as an electronic kick trigger). But his most important preparation is mental, avoiding getting psyched out by the competition. “I made a lot of mistakes when I was young, trying to catch the act before me and the next thing I know I’m on stage and I’m not warm,” he says. “It’s really about what I’m about to do, not what they’re doing, because you can get taken out by somebody doing something amazing. You’re like, ’Wow,’ and all of a sudden you’re not thinking about what you’re supposed to do.”
At this point in his career Batista knows exactly what he's supposed to do, and he expects everyone else in his circle will too. He admits he's extremely critical of technicians. “Playing congas and hand drums is tough," he says. "I always insist on getting a really nice [monitor] mix on my hand drums because if I don’t I’m going to end up overplaying and playing too hard. When I get a nice mix I can just flow.” The results of Batista’s high standards are obvious in every move he makes. (One example: the drum tech he chose to accompany him to New York for his audition with Alicia Keys wound up becoming her personal assistant).
HONORING TRADITIONS. Years of sacrificing for his art and working hard to attain the highest standards of professionalism have left Batista a little frustrated by what he perceives as a lack of appreciation for percussionists within the music industry. “Very few people understand what great percussionists are,” he says. “We’re people who study ethno-musicology. We’re people who study rhythms that are thousands of years old. People think, ’Aw, it’s the last thing we can hire, it’s the little sprinkles and things.’ But the reality of it is if you’ve got a great percussionist, they can play any style that you want.”
Batista's ability to remain versatile and to continue to give the artists whatever they want is aided by his academic approach to music. His desire to chase rhythms back to their wellsprings in cultural tradition was already in place back in college, when he did that first folklore demo that caught Grover Washington's ear. “When you go into heavy folklore, you start realizing where things come from, the things that we hear in popular music today,” Batista says. “This whole percussion thing, for me, is based on tradition. You have to have a tradition to base your style on — whether it’s Afro-Cuban, Afro-Caribbean, Brazilian, whether it’s Middle Eastern, Indian, or whether it’s totally African.”
During the ’90s, between tours with Grover Washington Jr., Batista made five separate trips to Cuba on grants he received from the Pennsylvania Council Of The Arts to do folkloric research on Afro-Cuban drumming. There, he was introduced to, among other things, the complicated polyrhythms and intricate call-and-response format of batá, a style centered in the ancient religious beliefs of the Yorùbá people of Nigeria that involves three drums, each with two heads.
“[Batá] is based on Orishas, or saints of nature: lightning and thunder and the Earth and the ocean,” Batista explains. “So when you study the drums you realize what rhythms are associated with what Orishas and so on. You have to be involved and understand what you’re playing for, why you’re playing. Each style has its own language, and it’s about learning the language, then the phrases within the language, then being able to speak. So it is academic in origin. But all of that really adds to one’s musicality. Your ear just becomes sharper and sharper.”
Batista credits his time teaching at the Association Of Latin American Musicians (AMLA) in Philadelphia — something to which he’s devoted three or four months a year going back 15 years — for affording him the opportunity to develop fluency in so many rhythmic languages.
“I love teaching because I learn from teaching,” he says. “Each instrument that you touch is a world within itself. As a teacher, it just makes me realize how much I don’t know. Music is infinite, like God. Music is a gift of God and it’s infinite. There’s no way for anyone to know everything.”
Still, what Batista does know is considerable, and it was put to the test during one of his most high profile gigs working with R&B superstar Alicia Keys on the tour following the release of her first album, Songs In A Minor. “[Alicia]’s constantly switching gears, and she’s a very eclectic person,” Batista says. “You might be playing an African groove one minute and the next thing you know you’re breaking into a Latin thing, and the next thing you know you’re doing 6/8, and the next thing you’re doing hip-hop. She’s very open to the world. And that’s why I love working with Alicia. She’s very tough and demanding and I love the challenge, I love it. As a percussionist it’s very cool.”
When he was called to try out for Keys in New York, Batista was splitting his time between gigs with Teddy Pendergrass and Gerald Lavert, but he was still reeling from the untimely death of his long-time friend and bandmate, Grover Washington Jr. “After Grover died it just took me out,” Batista remembers. “I really just became a recluse. I wouldn’t take any gigs. I took about a year off.”
THE DEATH OF A LEGEND. In December of ’99, Batista was with Washington in the Green Room of CBS Studios in New York after recording a near-perfect performance for The Saturday Early Show. They were talking about their upcoming plans to play in Jamaica. “I was one of the last ones to leave the dressing room,” remembers Batista. “I told Grover I loved him, gave him a hug. We always used to say that. ’I love you man.’” Batista’s family had come along to see the taping, and he took them over to FAO Schwartz, which is right near CBS. When they came out a short time later they saw police and paramedics rushing through the CBS building. “We never paid it any attention because we were in New York,” he says. “We didn’t know it was Grover.”
Batista got cleaned up and headed over to an LP Christmas banquet where the mood was upbeat, with people asking him about Washington. “I’m talking about him like, ’Aw, he’s great, Grover’s great.’ By then he was already dead.” The next morning, during a casual phone call to a family member, they found out what had happened.
“Grover was the best, he was just the best. I love him and I miss him,” Batista says. “But you know, this guy is one of the founders of smooth jazz. And he’d been doing it for a long time with a lot on his plate. And I just think it was just his time.”
Fast forward to 2002. Batista arrives in New York (somewhat grudgingly) to unleash his malice in front of the wizened princess of R&B, Alicia Keys. The result? “Blew ’em away,” he says simply. “MD jumped up, started shaking my hand. ’Thanks a lot man, you sounded great.’ [Keys] came in behind him, shook my hand and said, ’Well, thanks for coming, we’ll be in touch.’ I was blown away.” Batista went home and a few days later saw Keys on TV winning three American Music Awards. He called New York to see what was going on, but she hadn’t made a decision yet. A few days later he got a call to fly out to New York and audition again. “Same thing,” he says, “blew ’em away again.” But Keys continued to play it cool. Two days before the tour was set to leave, Batista had already written it off when he got the call that he’d been selected. He threw his equipment together, hopped on a plane, and spent the next two-and-a-half years on tour.
“She’s tough. She’s a tough girl man, and she’s very demanding, which I love. That’s where that malicia I’m always talking about comes in,” he says, laughing. He went on to record her next two albums with her, 2003’s The Diary Of Alicia Keys and 2005’s Unplugged. But he’ll never forget one of the pivotal moments of his career: performing live with Keys at the 2002 Grammys (where she took home five awards for Songs In A Minor). He was even able to indulge in a little idol worship. “I’m a huge Dave Mathews fan,” he says. “And all of a sudden here are these guys walking past me and for me, it was another dream come true. With all the artists I’m in awe a little bit. For me they’re royalty. These people have been touched. For me to be working with them and to be in their presence and riding the bus with them, I’m very humbled.”
ON THE HORIZON. One of these days, Batista might have more on his plate than he can handle. But for now, he doesn’t seem to be slowing down a bit. He just came off a year-and-a-half touring schedule with Kirk Franklin in support of his album, Hero. “It’s been a blessing,” Batista says of that experience. “Kirk’s been able to go all over the world. He’s been touching people and spreading the gospel. And he’s a great, great person, and I love him. He’s a brother, Kirk’s a true brother.” Between tours, Batista has been working with burgeoning, Philadelphia-based acoustic pop troubadour, Jon DeLise and his band Tragedy Fails. And on top of that, he has an instructional book coming out, and he continues to emphasize his availability as a teacher and a clinician. “Like Grover would always say, this is only half-time,” says Batista. “I feel real good, I’m strong. I have a lot of knowledge. And it comes from years of trittin’ trottin’ trails. It’s been a whirlwind. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I’ve been studying all my life and I’ve been playing for a long, long time. I’m ready. I can play with anybody and feel comfortable. I’ve had a wonderful career thus far. And I’m still young and strong, so I’m just ready to rock.”
Pablo’s Percussion Rig
1. 12.5" x 30" Accents Armando Peraza Fiberglass Tumba
2. 11.75" x 30" Accents Armando Peraza Fiberglass Conga
3 . 11.75" x 30" Accents Armando Peraza Fiberglass Conga
4 . 14" & 15" Tito Puente Timbales (Brass)
5. 7.25" & 8.625" Accents Armando Peraza Bongos
A. 8" Brilliant Splash
B. 18" Thin Brilliant China Boy
C. 14" or 16" Dave Weckl Thin Brilliant Crash
D. 22" Wind Gong
E. Assorted Percussion Rack
F . Double Roll Brass China with two Triangles
G. Mounted Cyclops Tambourine
H. Timbale Bongo Bell, Orange Jam Block, and Cha Cha Bells
I . LP Bell with Gibraltar Foot Pedal
J. Table with Assorted Percussion Toys
K. Hand Sonic with Electronic Pedal