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Jazz Philadelphia's Hometown Heroes: Spotlight on Percussionist Pablo Batista

Josh Pelta Heller for WXPN
Pablo Batista

Latin jazz percussionist Pablo Batista has developed a reputation as one of most versatile and hardworking players in Latin jazz and modern jazz, and in R&B and funk circles. Born to immigrant Puerto Rican parents in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Batista honed his skills playing in school bands. But his main love was playing Afro-Cuban and Latin music, which he started at the age of nine with his mentor and master percussionist Miguel Candia, also a teacher of the renowned drummer Giovanni Hidalgo.

While majoring in criminal justice and pre-law at Temple University in the early 80s, Batista continued to study music on the side. His first big break on the scene came from a chance connection with the fabled Philadelphian Grover Washington.

“I had been working for a community summer program,” Batista related. “It happened that my supervisor, Dr. Williams Keyes, was friends with singer Jean Carne’s manager, Walt Reeder. Walt gave Grover a demo tape of Afro-Cuban drumming I made. The next thing I know, I was invited to a recording session for Jean. So my first-ever professional recording was "Closer Than Close," which Grover produced for Jean and became a big hit.” Batista’s tenure with Washington started in 1991 and ended in 1999 with Washington’s passing.

In 2000, Batista crossed genre lines and joined superstar Alicia Keys, whom he toured and performed with for the better part of 12 years. During his tenure on tour, Batista continued to expand his cultural knowledge, and received two Pew Fellowships to further develop El Viaje (The Journey), an opera that was presented at Temple Performing Arts Center in 2016.

He also received a number of grants to travel to Cuba to study Afro-Cuban percussion, music, and folklore. Percussion masters he studied with included legends like Changuito, Tata Guines, and Miguel “Anga” Diaz. As a result of these studies, Batista became adept on the sacred bata, and honed his chops on congas, timbales, and other percussion.

During this period, Batista was also playing with some of the top salsa groups in New York City. Along with fellow Philadelphian Papo Vazquez, Batista worked with the legendary group Manny Oquendo’s Libre, and he toured and recorded with trombonist Jimmy Bosc.

Batista’s skills and versatility made him a first-call percussionist on the R&B and soul music circuit where over the years he’s racked up a number of Gold and Platinum records performing and collaborating with the likes of Patty Labelle, Phyllis Hyman, Gerald Levert, Kirk Franklin, and Jeffrey Osbourne.
A mainstay in Philadelphia’s jazz and Latin music circles, Batista has also been giving back as a Latin percussion educator for the last 17 years at the fabled AMLA music school. He’s also recorded Philadelphia artists and others at his own Slaphard Studios. In addition to staying true to his first love and playing routinely with his 10-piece salsa conjunto outfit Mambo Syndicate, he continues to stretch past musical boundaries, playing with eclectic groups such as Worldtown Soundsystem.

“I believe that my success as a musician came as a result of my intensive study and practice,” reflected Batista. “In order to succeed in this art form, you have to develop discipline in all aspects of your life, both as an artist and as a professional. You achieve this goal, and will enjoy the fruits of your accomplishments.”

Watch Batista and his Latin Jazz Ensemble perform at South Jazz Kitchen. After a heartfelt introduction, they begin playing at about 2:17.