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Remembering Drummer Lionel Batiste, Icon Of New Orleans Music

Uncle Lionel Batiste at the Candlelight Lounge in 2010.
Patrick Jarenwattananon
Uncle Lionel Batiste at the Candlelight Lounge in 2010.

"Uncle" Lionel Batiste, the bass drummer, singer and public face of the Treme Brass Band, died Sunday morning. NOLA.com reported that the cause was cancer, and that he was 80.

Batiste was a popular ambassador for the band, and for New Orleans music at large. Ever well-dressed — usually with a hat, sunglasses and watch — he was often spotted gliding about on the dance floor or street, or leading a parade. I took the above photo in 2010 at one of the Treme Brass Band's weekly performances at the Candlelight Lounge. Admittedly, I didn't aim for the photo to come out the way it did, but I think the result portrays Uncle Lionel in his natural habitat, slip-sliding about patrons with the tip jar.

WBGO's Josh Jackson also saw him and his bass drum in concert, spotted him in photography projects and pointed him out on the HBO series Treme. And for a 2010 story about the Treme Brass Band, some five years after Hurricane Katrina, NPR's Mandalit del Barco featured Batiste as part of her report. Here's the relevant section, as adapted for web:

Central to the band's popularity is the stylish bass drummer, Lionel Paul Batiste, Sr. "Uncle Lionel," as he's known, is never without his dark sunglasses and a hat, two-tone shoes, gold watch and rings.

"Uncle's the man, know what I'm saying?" says [trombonist Big Sam] Williams. "Just a real cool daddy. He gets all the women." Batiste enjoys the attention. "I keeps myself up," he says. The debonair 78-year-old gets attention whether he's flirting on the dance floor, grand-marshaling a Mardi Gras parade or just strutting down the streets of the French Quarter. His iconic image now looms over Times Square on a banner for Spike Lee's latest New Orleans documentary.

"It makes me feel real proud I'm getting my recognition," he says from the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Treme. "I always try to put a smile on someone's face."

Batiste grew up dancing on Bourbon Street and playing in kazoo bands. But he's most famous for keeping time with his ragtag, upright bass drum with a cymbal on top. Earlier this year, he lost that drum during a parade.

"The fellow 'sposed to be watching it, he was half drunk," he recalls. Immediately, the word went out over radio station WWOZ.

"When the drum was stolen, we took it very seriously," says DJ George Ingmire. "There were a lot of people very upset about it. When you think of New Orleans, one of the things you think of is the bass drum as a symbol. Forget the steaming bowl of gumbo or the beignets, the cliches. It's Lionel's drum that makes it. Hitting it with a wire coat hanger, that's New Orleans to me." Uncle Lionel's drum turned up within a day.

He likes to tell the story of his drum during Hurricane Katrina. When the levees broke and flooded the streets, he was still at his house in the Treme. "I was watching the water rise and drinking my liquor," he says. "I didn't want to leave, but I'm glad I did. Yeah I'm glad I did."

True to form, Uncle Lionel evacuated in style. "I used my bass drum and turned it flat. Just paddled my feet," he laughs, remembering how he used his drum as a life raft. "And, of course, I had my liquor on top there."

The drum saved him as he paddled to safety. "It's still in good condition," he says, smiling. "It's still taking that beating."

That bass drum which has been through a flood and an attempted theft was meaningful to a lot of people. In the NOLA.com/Times-Picayune obituary, drummer Herman LeBeaux is quoted: "Inside Uncle Lionel's bass drum is the pulse of the city."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.