Joe Bataan has a deep, rich catalog, and Afrofilipino is a good place to start exploring.
Hot take: when done with respect and enthusiasm, there’s nothing wrong with playing the music of a heritage that isn’t yours. Take for instance the case of Latin boogaloo pioneer Joe Bataan. Of African-American and Filipino descent, Bataan—born Bataan Nitollano in 1942—immersed himself in the Puerto Rican culture of East Harlem where he grew up. When he was 18, he stole a car, which got him five years in prison, and when he got out, despite lacking any training in music (and not being Latino), he started a Latin music band. As he told the New York Times in 2016, “When I look back, I think, ‘Gee, I really had a lot of nerve.’” Real Gone Music has reissued Bataan’s 1975 album Afrofilipino, his 10th album, and it’s a vital introduction to his music.
Bataan coined the term Salsoul, the name he gave to his own 1973 album and to the Salsoul Records label; Afrofilipino was its first release. The label would become one of the most successful of the disco era, and here Bataan’s hybrid of soul and salsa has developed from its rawer origins into a more commercial hip-shaking sound.
Afrofilipino opens with a version of the theme song from “Chico and the Man,” and its steady beat and swooning string line makes the sitcom melody perfect for the dancefloor, while simmering percussion keeps it firmly connected to its salsa roots. Bataan has a soulful, conversational tenor, which carries the modesty of such tracks as “Woman Don’t Want to Love Me” and “Ordinary Guy (Afrofilipino),” the latter a callback to his 1968 doo-wop flavored “Ordinary Guy.” However unassuming the sentiment, Bataan has got confidence; how else would an Afro-Filipino end up making it as a Latin music star?
This is breezy music that evokes a summer block party. The infectious “The Bottle,” an instrumental version of a Gil Scott-Heron song, adds an R&B horn chart touched with Latin rhythm. It’s only three and a half minutes, and could well have sustained its pulse over an extended 12” mix. Bataan’s influences all come together in “X-Rated Symphony,” its funk guitar, string section and percussion achieving the perfect synthesis of street-corner exuberance and studio professionalism in a live sound that you wish could go on far longer than four minutes. But the most incendiary track on the album is probably “Laughing and Crying,” which may be about romantic self-pity but soars on an explosive percussion section and intense brass solos.
The album closes with Bataan’s remake of his own “What Good is a Castle” from the 1968 album Riot, extending that eight-minute version to nearly 10 and a half. Slightly less raw than the original version, the more dirge-like ballad section perhaps builds to a stronger mid-tempo finish. Bataan went on to record an early rap hit in 1979, “Rap-O Clap-O,” but within a few years, after losing his money to gambling, he would leave music behind and get a job as a counselor at the same Bronx juvenile detention center where he had been sent as a teenager. An invitation to play a benefit concert in 1994 eventually led to his return to music, which he’s back to playing full-time. Joe Bataan has a deep, rich catalog, and Afrofilipino is a good place to start exploring.