We caught up with multi-percussionist Dan McMillan of the Pittsburgh band Batamba. With Batamba you can see him play the Conguero, Bongocero and Djembefola. We discovered Batamba while opening up for Bombino at Thunderbird Café last November. The photos above are from that show. The band is also made up of John Bagnato on guitar and vocals, Victor Ruiz on baritone guitar and bass lines, Gordon Nunn on drum set and percussion, Joe Badaaczewski on trumpet and Nathan Frink on alto, soprano, tenor saxophone and flute.
What’s the name of your band? What’s the origin of that name? Have
you changed the band’s name before?
The name of the band is Batamba. It was originally called Nefarious Frink Gwokestra. We were playing Gwo Ka music, mainly inspired by David Murray who our saxophone player has spent a number of years working with and helping with arrangements. With the addition of John Bagnato we started moving away from doing covers and into original compositions that John writes. We ended up changing the name as the sound and originality evolved. The story of Batamba Djamba is actually quite interesting and one that I personally respond well to. Our bass player (or more accurately baritone guitarist), Victor Ruiz had a dream a long time ago. As he describes it, he was in a room with a bunch of snooty, not-so-educated, mediocre guitarists. In the dream he became frustrated, smashed his own guitar and stormed out. He went into another room where there were a bunch of people playing various drums. The man guiding the rhythms was dressed in yellow pants and his feet were bare. He was playing a bell. Another man came up to Victor and invited him to play. He gave him a simple rhythm and a smile. Then the man with the bell wearing yellow pants came up to Victor and Victor saw in his eyes something different, perhaps something spiritual. Victor started to ask the man if he was from somewhere else but before he could utter the question the man was already nodding. Victor asked him who he was and he gave the name Batamba Djamba. I love that story for many specific reasons I won’t get into with limited space. Suffice it to say it resonates with me on a lot of positive personal, cultural, and even theoretical levels.
What are your day jobs? If any.
I’m the only one who is not primarily a full-time working musician. I teach creative writing and composition classes at Pitt, which certainly allows me the support and time to pursue artistic interests. John Bagnato and Nathan Frink are both PhD students in jazz studies and composition at Pitt. Joe Badaaczewski has his masters degree in performance from Duquesne and basically works his ass off gigging. Gordon Nunn also gigs and teaches and has been working towards a doctorate (D.M.A.) in percussion for some time. Victor Ruiz is a full time musician as well and also owns a recording studio. In other words, the skill set of this group of nutters is stacked!
What genre of music do you consider your work to be? Who are your
That’s always a tough question with ultimately no truly accurate answer, but I would say that we are somewhere between Jazz and funk with lots of hints of Brazilian, West African, and Afro-Caribbean regions. The one real binding thing that brings us together is a love, respect, and appreciation for the depth and history of percussive traditions that are not well known in the States, but often are at the forefront of popular music in other regions, countries, and continents.
How long have you all known each other? How did you meet?
Willy-nilly here! I met Nathan and Gordon about five years ago but nothing coalesced. John has been around a couple years and obviously he and Nathan met at Pitt. Victor and Gordon have known each other for years as musicians. So basically a bunch of networking and a Craigslist post or two. We lost our first bass player and drum set player around the same time. I posted to C-List. Vic responded, worked out great, and then reminded me of Gordon who also fit really well.
Who writes your song lyrics? What is your inspiration?
John Bagnato. You’d have to ask him so I don’t say something stupid! I would say that the lyrics are often hopefully in the face of loss. There I just said something that might be stupid.
When did you form your band? What inspired you to make music together?
We’ve been working at it for about a year and a half now, but that’s not entirely accurate as the seeds of projects like this get planted further in the past, often in ways you don’t see at the time.
Where have you performed? What are your favorite and least favorite
Not enough places yet! Club Cafe a couple times. Hambones. Thunderbird. My personal favorite places to play are anywhere there is a ton of energy and feedback from the audience. Outdoor festivals are the bomb! Least favorite? I think I’ll not mention any by name. I’ve played a lot of places in and around the Burgh over the years, but I really find practices of pay-to-play, or sell tickets for the venue, or nothing comped, that sort of thing, to be highly exploitative of artists and overall damaging to art, culture, and communities and a lot of good music that would bring in customers gets marginalized by mediocre hacks who will engage in those practices. It happens all over the country in all major cities. Pittsburgh is no exception.
What are your rehearsals generally like? Do you have a set time each
week in which you practice or are rehearsals more spontaneous?
We have a set time, although that has recently been disrupted by recording our first CD and demo at Victor’s studio as well as not having regular gigs and exposure.
What’s your ultimate direction for your band? Are you seeking fame
Good, articulate, interesting, new music based on a strong studied foundation of traditions from specific regions around the globe.
Fame and fortune? Of course. It would be a realized dream for all of us to legitimately make it to the Grammy’s
How can fans-to-be gain access to your music? Do you have a website
with sample songs or a demo CD?
When is your next show?
Sadly none at the moment, but hopefully that will change soon! The demo is finished and Victor is currently in Europe gaining interest overseas with it. We’ll see what the future brings! But we will definitely be around the Burgh as the weather warms up.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Not really. Just love percussion and don’t be the jackass who calls every drum “bongos.” If you dig rhythm and well-thought-out music put together by guys who really know their stuff, then give Batamba a try! No we’re not snooty. We love people. We love music. And we respect and live for the moments when those two can come together in positive ways!