Boogaloo Legend Joe Bataan Preaches “Streetology” and Diasporic Filipino Love

Joe Bataan, left, a Latin Boogaloo musician, is featured in a new documentary called "We Like It Like That," directed by Mathew Ramirez. Bataan is African American and Filipino American.
The musician behind "Ordinary Guy" and other hits talks about his Black and Filipino identity growing up among Latino Americans in Harlem.

I remember coming across Joe Bataan’s music when I was a volunteer DJ on the “Salsa Sabrosa” show for for a public radio station in Albuquerque over a decade ago. His music, much like the legend himself, is difficult to peg into one category. I would slip in one of his songs between sets of “salsa dura,” full of heavy horn riffs and piano solos or during the funky “Nuyorican” soulful cuts. Much like Joe Bataan, his music is a reflection of street hustling in Harlem, his own mixed heritage, and his newfound spirituality. Because he frequently sings in Spanish and sings longingly for Puerto Rico like in “Para Puerto Rico Voy” and has such a mastery of the classic cha-cha sound that merges with funk and R&B to produce “Latin Boogaloo,” it never occurred to me that he was not Latino. He explained to me that this assumption was so strong, he encountered problems in the music industry when he started to directly identify as Afro-Filipino.

Joe Bataan, born Bataan Nitollano, talked with me by phone from his home in New York after touring in China. We discussed his mixed cultural upbringing and how he crafted his own musical style that blended his life experiences moving betwixt and between various cultural practices and understandings of the world. We also talked about his reemergence into the world of music after a long hiatus, the upcoming documentary We Like it Like That – The Story of Latin Boogaloo, directed by Mathew Ramirez, that premieres on World Channel on October 4 (check local listings), as well as his new book project. He also let me in on his secret for “running around stage like a 22 year old” at the vibrant age of 73.

—Mitzi Uehara Carter

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself — where you were born, raised, and how you got involved in music?
My mom is Black American and my dad is Filipino. He lived in San Diego and then later settled in Harlem where there was a lot more freedom. He had a different outlook on America than other Asians who didn’t go through Harlem. He was a seasonal cook in great demand. He would go to the Catskills or when the weather was cold he would go down to Florida and he would work six to seven months out of the year. He worked at the Jewish resorts because he knew how to prepare kosher food. The rest of the time, he would spend time with me.

My father took his brother’s identification papers and joined the service when he was 16. From my research, it was around that time when Filipinos were encouraged to go the U.S. and they could gain citizenship. In the 1930’s there was an influx of Filipinos coming here. He joined the Navy and stayed in it for eight years so he could get passage to come down here.

When I later went to San Francisco, a lot of Filipinos grabbed a hold of me and wanted to educate me about my heritage because I didn’t know much. When I told them my story, they listened intently and said, “You need to read these books.” And that’s when I started to read a lot about the laws in the 1900’s and when Filipinos started coming over here.

Anyways, he met my mother in Harlem and then had me.

And is there a story behind your name?
When he named me Bataan there was a little problem because it was during the war. People wanted to know if my name was in relation to WWII and so he had to explain from what I remember, that Bataan means “youth conquers all.” I never had time to research this but when I was in the Philippines, a young lady told me the significance of my name another way. She said there was a legend of a prince and princess who had to escape a rival tribal faction in the 1600’s and found a safe haven and named it Bataan. In America, people couldn’t figure it out. They’d ask me, “Is that a Spanish name or what?” My dad told me if I were a girl, he was gonna name me Corrigidor. (laughs) Can you imagine if your name is Corrigidor in Harlem? Thank goodness I was a boy and named Bataan.

Joe Bataan's father. Photo courtesy of Joe Bataan.
Joe Bataan’s father. Photo courtesy of Joe Bataan.

I love these stories. It sounds like you were close to your dad.
Filipinos are great providers. I noticed that their offspring are very important to them. Even when my dad got tired of living in the household, the one thing that kept him there was me. And he taught me a lot of lessons.

I once asked my dad, how come I don’t have hair like you. He said, “You want hair like me?! Go get me a coconut.” I got it for him and he cut it in half, squeezed out the juice and fried it. I said, “geez, can you really do this?” His hair and my hair is like night and day. And so he got this concoction and put it all in my hair. And for some reason it didn’t move. It was just stuck there, like a mountain of glue! I said, “Dad! The smell is horrible, get this shit out of my hair!” He said, “you wanted hair like mine, now you got it!” I said, “not like this!” It took me almost a month to get the stench out of my hair and I never asked again.

That is the best. You have got to turn this into a children’s story, an Afro-Filipino children’s tale!
But these stories are true! It goes to show you what’s it’s like to be an offspring of a Filipino who didn’t look like his father and didn’t look like his mother but grew up with Latinos. I had to learn the language too. A friend of mine said, “Joe Bataan grew up a minority in East Harlem.” I had never thought about it that way but it’s true. I was the minority because I was in the middle of all this influx of Black Americans, Puerto Ricans, some Polish, some Jews and I had to fight my way through to get my respect and to be a part of the community. That never hit me until recently. I was in a neighborhood where Spanish was predominately spoken and of course I had to learn it. In school most of my friends were Nuyoricans.

For years, especially after I got into the music industry, people took it for granted that I was Puerto Rican. After three or four albums, there was no way you were going to tell them that that I wasn’t Puerto Rican.

What changed?
All of a sudden I started to sing a lot of the doo-wop songs in English and Blacks started to identify me. And then the argument in the streets was weather I was Puerto Rican or Black. And actually, it didn’t even matter to me. I never said what I was because I was still trying to find out who the hell I was anyways.

Years later, I looked in he mirror and said who the hell am I? I need some name to identify myself and that’s why I came up with “Afro-Filipino.” I don’t think until that time nobody had ever done that—at least not Filipinos. So then the Latin music industry was a little perturbed that I was no longer “Latino.”

How did they express that to you?
Well in different ways—there were the haters out there. If you didn’t play your music according to their style, you weren’t considered a true Latin musician. Well I never tried to be. I just played the music that I liked and gave it my own interpretation. In fact, I just stuck to my guns. And a lot of people never went my way. Because of the prejudice following me. The industry kept me from getting my show, from doing commercials, and then they eventually try to take my records off the radio because I was the first artist to leave Fania Records.

I had gained popularity from Fania because it was sort of like a household name at that time, especially in the tri-state area. I wanted to control my own destiny. I wanted to know about marketing, how to control the artwork, I didn’t need a musical director—I started doing that myself and after a while, I got rid of anyone that had a hold on Joe Bataan. I did everything myself so nobody gave Joe Bataan anything, I had to go get it myself.

Let’s go back. How did you get into music in the first place?
I got into a bunch of mischief as a kid and was eventually sent away. I decided I’m going to pretend I’m going away to college and while I was incarcerated, I read everything that I could. I traveled the world through books. When I got home, I begged the community center’s director to let me play on the piano. Before I made music through A cappella—singing in the hallways and the streets and I could do three, four-part harmony. I just didn’t know that’s what it was called. So when I finally got to read the theory, it started to connect.

Joe Bataan (center) with bandmates in 1965. Photo courtesy of Joe Bataan.
Joe Bataan (center) with bandmates in 1965. Photo courtesy of Joe Bataan.

And is this when you got the idea to start a band?
I walked into the community center one day and I thought the place belonged to me because that was my reputation back then. I saw this group of young kids, like 12 years old or so and they were playing music. I went up to them and asked them, “What the hell are you doing in here.” They were scared because they knew my reputation and then I thought, I’ve got this thing set up for me. My band is here. And this is true. I took a knife out of my pocket and stuck it in the baby grand piano and said I’m the leader of this band. I laugh at it today but that’s how things were done back then. I promised them that I’d take them to a place they’ve never been before if they stuck with me. We thought it would take five years to develop but practicing five days a week, we developed into a band in six months.

I know that boogaloo music has at its core a rebellious soul. To some extent it was a rebellion against a “purist” salsa sound and it’s reflecting the sound of a culturally mixed space of New York. There’s a lot of swagger in your music. Like your song “Young, Gifted and Brown.” Tell me about your particular style.

We developed a definitive style. Well, it was also the lyrics of the songs I wrote. Once, Feliciano from the Young Lords said that my songs talked about riots, about the streets where you lived, freedom — it talked about the everyday thinking and survival on the streets of New York. And when I did that song (Young, Gifted, and Brown)—it was to identify myself. There were already songs about Blacks, songs about Whites, but the middle person was missing.

When it comes to my music, they tried to put me in the Black category with R&B. No. Then they try to put me in the Latin category. No. So they put Joe Bataan in World Music so it’s available to everybody.   When you come to my concert, you’ll see it’s my own style and what I bring to the table with this mixture of Latin with English lyrics that separates me from other boogaloo artists. I can change into pure salsa and then straight R&B and funk and I can also do oldies but goodies slow jams. Once you’re a Joe Bataan fan you’ll never leave.

And how would you define Boogaloo for those who are not familiar?
Boogaloo is a cha cha piece and what’s most significant about is when you do it in English and that allows non-Spanish speakers to listen to the music. There’s an infectious cha-cha beat to it. The Latin boogaloo is nothing new. Many artists didn’t even know they were doing it. Smoky Robinson was doing it a long time before me. He didn’t even know—a lot of the songs he wrote were cha-cha based. In England they call it Acid Rock, Boogaloo in NY, Latin Soul in Japan. There’s Northern Soul and Salsoul too.

And you also were attracted to rap music early on right?
Well—there was no name for it then. I discovered it in a community center when Dr. Jeckyll and Hyde were performing and they had no name for it. It was phenomenal. They were spinning records and clapping their hands. And I went into the studio and put some music together and the next thing I knew, 6 months later, “Rap-O Clap-O” went to number one in Belgium, number two in France, number three in Germany and I was an instant international success.

You are featured in an upcoming documentary, We like It Like That and there is a lot of renewed interest in your music. What has that been like and are you working on any other new projects?
You know I almost passed away three different times in my life and God came into my life and changed everything for me. A TV show is doing a piece on my rap music in Harlem, this documentary is coming out. I now travel all over the world. Wherever I go, the first song I sing is a prayer and it’s my way of thanking God. The other night, I had a large performance and the audience were all singing and praying with me. It’s just a tremendous feeling about how full circle you can go. I always knew right from wrong, but I never knew the proper way to get to this point and it was through grace, peace and mercy. That’s my secret and there’s nothing complicated about it. I’m 73 years old and I run around the stage like I’m 22.

I’m writing a book called Streetology. It’s the story of Joe Bataan’s survival in the music business for over 50 years. It’s about the ups and downs and what I had to go through to come the point where I am now.

Joe Bataan performing in 2013. Photo courtesy of Joe Bataan.
Joe Bataan performing in 2013. Photo courtesy of Joe Bataan.

Have you ever toured in the Philippines?
Oh I’ve gotta tell you this story. When I got there, I thought I was gonna play in Manila but it was like an hour and half away from Manila. And all these young people came out to this island like 5,000 or so. This gentleman who lived there later wrote me to thank me for coming. It actually made me cry. He said, that when I sang the prayer song, the kids didn’t know what they were singing. And when they later realized what they were singing, he said I brought them back to something that had been missing from the island in some time. He said I made an impact. I realize now what he meant—a lot of those youth were trying to emulate what we do over here but the prayer through their heritage, was missing from their lives.

You know Fred Cordova wrote about the forgotten Filipino Americans and I had to read that book to understand what he meant about the lost Filipinos. He said that a lot of Filipinos that came over here needed to be mobilized. They came over here and Filipinos were quiet and it was time to wake up and do something.

You know for a long time, Filipinos didn’t even consider me to be Filipino. But an older gentleman said to me, when you go to there, everybody is your family. That’s how I feel now. I probably know more Filipino American history than a lot of Filipinos here!

I don’t see why we can’t have a world stage to show all they’ve done. And this is part of my dream to showcase this talent. To show how we remember and wake up.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Mitzi Uehara Carter is a professor of Anthropology and East Asian Studies at Florida International University. Her research focuses on race in transnational militarized spaces. She is currently working on her book about her mother and militarization in Okinawa.

Catch We Like It Like That (dir. Mathew Ramirez), about the Latin Boogaloo era and its continued influence today, on October 4, 2016 on World’s Channel’s Emmy-nominated America ReFramed series. Check local listings.

About the We Like It Like That
Created and popularized by largely Puerto Rican, Cuban and African American youths living alongside each other as neighbors and friends in the 1960s, Boogaloo served as an authentic and vibrant cultural expression of a generation using Latin musical hooks with English lyrics. We Like It Like That explores a lesser-known but pivotal moment in 1960’s music history when blues, funk and traditional Caribbean rhythms were fused to define a new generation of urban Latinos.

The story of Boogaloo and its major proponents is told through a mix of contemporary interviews, music recordings, live performances, dancing and rare archival footage and images. Emanating from Latin enclaves in New York City, and notably from El Barrio or Spanish Harlem, the musical style squarely lies within the continuum of Latin culture as it evolved alongside African American culture in New York City. Boogaloo fused doo-wop, rhythm and blues (R & B), soul music and traditional Afro Cuban mambo and son montunos, and made a lasting impact in New York, across the nation and beyond.

Noted Latin music expert, René López says that Boogaloo can be best understood as the first Nuyorican music heralding an unprecedented American cultural phenomenon. Among the period’s greatest hits are “Bang Bang” by the Joe Cuba Sextet, Johnny Colón’s “Boogaloo Blues,” Pete Rodríguez’s “I Like it Like That” and Héctor Rivera’s “At the Party.” These tunes and others garnered mainstream attention, and the genre was even co-opted by mainstay Latin legends such as Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri, and others.

As with varied forms of new artistic expression, Boogaloo was met with resistance if not overt repression, from the prior generation and the business structures that supported the music industry. Although Boogaloo lasted for about a decade, the music lit a flame and the sub-genre, appreciated all over the globe, continues to be celebrated and is showing signs of a vigorous revival.