Pablo Batista: Master Drummer

Backstage at Oracle Arena, Pablo Batista is digging into a plate of salmon sashimi and brown rice. The hand drummer and all-around percussive slayer has gone holistic with his diet recently, and when you roll with Alicia Keys on a nation-wide tour, there’s no half-stepping.

A model of calm behind his polarized shades, Batista doesn’t seem to be enjoying his food. What would seem like moodiness in an ordinary person is for the 47-year-old Batista just his way of getting into the proper headspace before tonight’s show. When we arrived at the 27,000-capacity Oakland, California venue, Batista had just finished sound-check and was behind his rig blazing a mozambique, a tasty beat that has nothing to do with the meat-and-potatoes style he rocks with Alicia Keys. Next he did a fierce little bomba – the signature Puerto Rico beat – before a giving us a short tutorial on the history of rhythm in the Virgin Islands. And so it goes with Batista, a walking encyclopedia of Caribbean beats, who can dissect their genealogy for hours if you let him. “I don’t want to just be a pop drummer,” he says. “I want to be a master drummer. That’s the level of knowledge I’m trying to get to.”

Way Of The Warrior

During the show – all Rambo’d out in olive-drab vest and black bandana – Batista is dwarfed by the sculpted metal props, jumbo-sized video monitor, and other trappings of the enormo-dome spectacle. Locking in with Paul John, Keys’ drum set player, Batista downplays his extraordinary chops to deliver just the right amount of spice to Keys’ R&B swagger. Not exactly heady stuff but he seems to be having fun and clocking a nice pay check in the bargain.

What’s not so obvious is the goose-necked pen lights affixed to the front of his congas. From stage left, they appear like pinpricks of halogen, but from the audience’s perspective they’re not even visible. For Batista, they’re akin to lighthouse beacons. Afflicted with retinitis pigmentosa since his early twenties, Batista has been gradually losing his vision over the last two and a half decades. With only 5—10 percent of his vision remaining, he is legally blind. “And that’s in the daylight,” he says. “At night that gap closes.”

But Batista recoils at the idea of needing any sort of crutch. The visual aids are more about making others comfortable than they are a necessity. “This is my house; I live here,” he says, referring to the 8' x 8' spread of drums, cymbals, electronic pads, and percussion tables. “Dude, I play with sunglasses on in addition, so sometimes I don’t even see those lights. Nobody knows that s__t harder than me. See what I’m saying? I’m so up in that. And the thing is that what we do with Alicia, we work so extensively that I live up on that riser.”

The lights have their role, but when you play fully immersed, as Batista does on a nightly basis, it’s not about seeing in the physical sense. “Sometimes you are cooking, you are in it, and you can forget where you are at – you get disoriented. Sometimes I get real in my zone, so when I get real heavy in it, I look up and say, ’Okay where am I going?’ But I play by feel. I’ve been doing it for so long I know where everything is at and I just flow from one thing to another.”

Keys’ soundman, David Kob, a Grammy-winning engineer, refers to Pablo as Zatoichi, the blind samurai from the popular Japanese TV series of the same name. Batista is not a martial arts B-movie fanatic, but the comparison to Zatoichi, whose handicap improved his abilities as a swordsman, is an apt one. Batista acknowledges the reality of his eye condition but refuses to dwell on it. “If anything [the impaired vision] has made my ears go crazy – I hear everything! – probably too much. [laughs] People know that I bring it. For salsa, rock, soul, I don’t care. Electronic stuff, hip-hop, whatever, I’m going to annihilate inside those walls [of my rig]. Like Zatoichi, I’m just going to keep knocking the wings off flies.”

Despite the condition’s chronic-progressive nature, he is cautiously optimistic about a cure ever since the Obama administration loosened the purse strings for stem cell research in 2009. “But we lost eight years before that,” he says. “And that was eight years in my lifetime that could’ve made a difference.” He has not seen the opthamologist in a few years and doesn’t see the point. “Pretty much they can’t do anything,” he says. “My thing is, Are you getting any results?”

On the research front there have been marginal improvements in light sensitivity for subjects at Batista’s phase of the disease. “That’s not the type of advancement that I am looking at before I go underneath the knife,” he says. “If I’m going to go in I am hoping to regain a lot of vision, not just 10 percent or 15 percent. It’s not enough.”

Man At Work

A few months after the Oakland set, we made the mistake of hollering at Batista on a sweltering Monday in August at his crib in the Philly suburbs as he was in the middle of a shed session – and we mean shed. Dude’s tank top is soaked as he parses the oro seco, a complex series of African rhythms that he further subdivides into different tones.

With Keys on maternity leave with baby-daddy Swizz Beatz, Batista stays busy enough for three percussionists. He spends 6—8 hours a day studying ancient rhythms and their variants, but the early-morning hours are devoted to physical workouts. “I’m a little vain,” he chuckles. “I don’t want to see slobby-looking dudes up on stage.” When he isn’t giving private lessons (one of his long-time students recently died, which is having a profound effect on him), his evenings are booked several times a week doing weddings or corporate gigs with the Sid Miller Orchestra, session work with producer David Ivory, or as of late, performing with Urban Guerilla Orchestra. Led by trumpeter Henri McMillian, UGO does a lot of R&B/funk that not only pays but is also a blast to play.

“He’s going to give everything emotionally, spiritually, physically,” says McMillian, swinging by the house to deliver his sideman a nice little check. “He makes us find energy that we didn’t even know we had.”

Born and raised in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 50 miles west of his current residence, Batista recalls hanging out as a young teen at Ralph’s, the local dry cleaners, where the owner jammed Ray Barretto, Willie Bobo, Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente, and Rueben Blades. At night he would tune into WDAS, the iconic “Philly soul” station, and a salsa station in New York. Batista’s first formal conga lesson was with Miguel Candia, who worked with his dad at Bethlehem Steel. At one point, Candia gave lessons to Giovanni Hidalgo. Three older sisters were his hook-up for ’70s R&B sounds while friends at high school were the classic rock connection. “Music was way different then,” he says. “Everyone had percussionists and trumpet players. It was more real. It was just very organic.”

A promising athlete in high school, Batista was sidelined early on by a football injury. It hardly mattered: He was already on the musical path. Although champing at the bit to get on the touring circuit and play full time, it would have to wait. “My parents were very insistent on the idea of getting an education,” he says. As soon as the diploma from Temple University was in his hands, he was off to New York where he had stints with Diana Reeves, Phyllis Hyman, Teddy Pendergrass, and others before joining smooth-jazz pioneer Grover Washington for a decade. During that time, Batista received multiple grants for folkloric research in Cuba, the fruits of which he shared with students at the Association Of Latin American Musicians, where he still teaches on occasion.

Batista cuts short the jaunt down memory lane to prepare for tonight’s class, an ongoing exploration of the orishas, the deities celebrated in bata drum trios that have been practiced by Nigeria’s Yoruba-speaking people for thousands of years. The orishas have direct influence on the Afro Cuban rhythms Batista has devoted his life to. This evening’s lesson will focus on oro ogun, or “order of the dead,” a series of staggeringly complicated rhythms that pay homage to one’s ancestors.

“This is as heavy drumming as you are going to get,” says Batista. “You can’t get any deeper than this, you know? And it’s a lifelong commitment.” When pressed about what the esoteric rhythms means for him personally, he balks. “I am scared to talk to too much about religion. I don’t want to freak people out and I don’t want to let them too deep into my scenario, but yeah, this is where my head is.”

Passage Of Rites

A drummer cannot live by ancient history alone, and Batista is more than willing to be in the moment. Always checking for Latin-pop trends on satellite radio, he has lately been getting a steady dose of reggaeton star Daddy Yankee. But even when the subject is the Puerto Rican equivalent of 50 Cent, he just can’t resist getting all academic. “A drum set[—based beat] is the one that really defines reggaeton’s rhythm,” he says accenting the 1 as he slaps a tabletop: tak-ti, tak-ti, tak-ti. “You listen to Yankee you will sometimes hear rumba and also merengue stuff.” Of the beat du jour, bachata, he is much more enthusiastic. “Bachata is Dominican. It’s really taken the bongo to a whole other thing. The style of bongo is now like a lead drum part. It’s usually marked by really serious fills, so the bongo’s role is essential.”

The late Carlos “Patato” Valdes, who invented the tunable conga, is an obvious touchstone for Batista’s melodic style of playing, as is Jorge Alfonso, better known as “El Niño,” the conguero for ’70s Latin rockers Irakere. “He had a really funky style with five congos and he really turned my head around,” he says. “But then I got into the real hardcore [West Coast] Latin-rock thing like [Santana sideman] Raul Rekow. I wore out Moonflower I played that record so much.”

Like a lot of East Coast cats, he has no problem stereotyping Californians. “The guys on the East Coast got more grit to ’em. New York is hard. The subway, the weather, wall-to-wall people. L.A.’s like ’Oh, let’s go down the organic juice bar,’” he laughs. “But in New York it’s way more intense, and you can hear it in the music.”

The Bar Just Got Higher

Another benefit of Alicia Keys’ sabbatical is that Batista can finally turn his attention toward the artist album that’s been brewing the last few years. “It’s a work in progress,” he laughs. The absence of label pressure or time constraints can be as much a liability as luxury, but he is proud of the project’s latest track. “It’s just my take on a traditional lullaby. It’s just a really gentle kind of rhythm but I love it.”

Another good thing about staying so busy is that it keeps his mind off of his eyes. “Within the next three to four years I think there will be some substantial improvements in that field. I really believe that, and that’s what I am waiting on,” he says. “But at the same time I don’t think about it. I don’t have the time to worry about what they are doing. I have to worry about what I am doing.”

For now, there is one goal: to be the best drummer possible. “It’s not a secret; it’s just a lot of old-fashioned grind,” he says. “I am not trying to compete with the world, but I am trying to set my own standards … and my standards are higher than everybody else’s.”