About the Project

Regarded as the King of Latin Soul, Joe Bataan is an artist/songwriter known for fusing Latin and Soul music to create a sound that, beginning in the 1960s, transcended the boundaries of race and culture.  Joe Bataan is himself a fusion: African-American, Filipino, and honorary Latino.


Bataan’s uniquely American story is about immigration, integration and assimilation.  Born to an African-American mother and a Filipino father Joe was raised in Spanish Harlem, a Latino neighborhood primarily made up of Puerto Ricans and Cubans.  Immigrants who came to the United States were encouraged to learn English, but Joe had to learn Spanish.  He did not see a white America; he saw a Latin America. 


During his adolescent years in the 1950s, East Harlem streets were filled with music.  Doo-wop was at its prime and young talents like fourteen-year-old Frankie Lymon from neighboring Washington Heights topped the charts.  For the children of East Harlem music was the most accessible form of pleasure, more so than books.  There were no formal rehearsal studios – street tunnels and building roofs and hallways were popular hangouts for kids to practice their songs. 


Everyone, including young Joe Bataan, dreamt of being a star.  Joe and his peers were encouraged to excel at sports or music as a way to break the cycle of poverty.  But music and sports were not enough for him.  He joined a street gang, becoming the leader of the Dragons.  Sent to prison for a stolen vehicle.  Joe forfeited a sports scholarship—he excelled in track and field—to Howard University.


In 1967, Joe's musical career reached its height two years after he was released from jail.  This was during the Civil Rights era when prominent African-American leaders such as Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and militant groups like the Young Lords and the Black Panthers were fighting against discrimination.  The time was ripe for all types of expressions.  Bataan, along with his contemporaries like Joe Cuba, Pete Rodriguez and Johnny Colon, were fusing Afro-Cuban beats with English lyrics called the ‘Bugaloo’ or Latin Soul .  Their musical style captured what people were pursuing at the time: integration and assimilation.  In 1968, Joe Bataan rearranged Smokey Robinson’s “It’s a Good Feeling” on his Riot! album combining classic Soul and Latin rhythms.  The record became a gold-selling album.


Joe's given name is Bataan Nitolano.  In 1942, when Joe was born, the world was at war, and the U.S. was in a fierce battle with Japan over the Philippines, which, just like Puerto Rico, was a United States colony.  Joe’s father named him after the place where the historic Bataan Death March took place that same year in the Philippines. The U.S. had acquired the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Guam from Spain in 1898. And although Cuba gained its independence in 1902, the Philippines remained a colony of the U.S. until 1946, while Puerto Rico remains an American territory. The continued influence of the U.S. on the Philippines remains palpable today.


At 72 Joe Bataan continues to improvise his music, style, and way of life.  "The King Of Latin Soul" (working title) is a documentary that will take us through  Joe Bataan's inspiring and transformative life story.  We’ll see how his influence on this enclave of New York City can be used to understand the broader concepts of culture and identity in a continuously evolving multi-ethnic world and why he is known as the King of Latin Soul.




© 2015


Photo Credit:   Jeff Brown