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Luis Conte is undoubtedly one of the most versatile rhythmic percussionist in the world today. An inspirational and musical player who fits perfectly into every genre he touches, he has worked in the studio and concert arena with some of the most successful artists in pop, latin and jazz and has played on some of the most popular soundtracks of our time.  uis was in Australia recently where he conducted clinics for Meinl and Electric Factory and performed a solo spot at the 'Ultimate Drummer’s Weekend'. His new record 'Cuban Dreams' is out now through Rounder Records, here is the result of our encounter.

AP: So Luis let’s start by discussing your background, you were born in Cuba, when did you move to the US?

LC: I was born in Santiago, Cuba is a very musical place, you are around music all the time, my family loved music, none of them play professionally but they all play instruments and I played some guitar and some percussion, but at that time it was just for fun. I arrived in the US when I was fifteen years old. For me to leave Cuba I had to go to Spain where I lived in Madrid for a few months, eventually leaving for Los Angeles.

AP: At that age were you contemplating or had an incline for a career in music?

LC: No, I had no idea in terms of a career in music. I was living with a cousin of my dad and I went to school at Hollywood High School. At the time in the US most Cubans migrated to Miami and New York, but my relatives happened to live in Los Angeles and that’s why I ended up there.

AP: So how did your musical career developed in the US?

LC: While in High School I was in school bands, little bands, we played dances, played rock’n roll, I could naturally play percussion, it was second nature to me, and since there were opportunities around to make some money playing in bands, making $25 a night I figured that this was cool and that if I did it a few nights a week I could make enough money to get by, this is how it all started. It kind of started out of a necessity, as I needed the work. it was one of those things like it was always there I didn't even think that I could do it as a profession.

AP: Did you get involved in a certain area of the music scene in Los Angeles?

LC: After school I ended up getting into the Latin scene playing with a few salsa bands eventually working with a singer named Azukita. He was born in Panama and had just moved to Los Angeles where he was forming a band. Because of friends I ended up at this rehearsal, the guy that was meant to play congas didn't show up and so I played, and he said “man you've got the gig.” That was the first band that I played with, that was known a little, that was around 1973 and 1974. You know once I got involved in playing, I don't know why but it didn't take long for me to get around, and to get to play with some great people. You know as I could play lots of instruments naturally, and was able to play diverse roles I started getting calls filling in for people, playing a variety of instruments. When that happened I also started thinking about really studying deeply all these instruments, finding out about the background of different patterns and styles.

AP: And so did you research and study with certain players?

LC: I started collecting records and meeting people that knew different traditions. You know for example for the Cuban styles there were fantastic people around like Francisco Aguabella, Rolando Soto who was a great bongocero, Mazacote, and I just kind of asked lots of questions. There was another great conguero called Perico, that guy played beautifully, and I used just go down and see him play and asked lots and lots of questions. At the same time though I was also interested in pop music. You know when I was in Cuba I never really payed attention to any of the traditional stuff, I mean I saw it and I was around it, but I payed more attention to the Rolling Stones and The Beatles. And while I was working with salsa bands in Los Angeles, I also started getting work with pop bands and started developing my career in other musical styles. 

AP: So while studying, playing salsa and playing in Latin dances, you also started to developed a career in the pop music world?

LC: Yes and that eventually led to my first gig with a band that had a hit. It was the Hues Corporation and their hit was Rock The Boat. I didn't play on the record, the guy that played on the record was Chino Valdez. He was one of the session guys in Los Angeles at the time, he used to do tons of sessions way back in the early 1970s, he had a good sound and also could read very well, he could read anything. I was told that they were looking for someone for the live gigs, I showed up for a rehearsal and got the gig. Next  thing I knew I was travelling all over the USA, playing at all the major places. The song was a number one hit, and of that year, one of the biggest hits. All of the sudden I was with these guys and we were playing all these amazing shows along with the O’Jays, The Spinners and The Jackson 5, for whom we opened for a week at Radio City Music Hall in New York. We were also on television shows Soul Train, ABC In Concert and the Midnight Special. It was a great era and I was right in the middle of it, just like that.

AP: At that point of time who were some of the established studio percussionists?

LC: Some of the studio players at that time were Chino Valdez, King Errison and Bobbie Hall, they were the ones that were doing all the recording sessions. I was mainly playing live and touring, not recording at that time. During that period I ended meeting a great percussionist, his name was Hector Andrade, he has sadly passed away recently. We became really good friends, he knew a lot of people, and he said to me one day “the Supremes without Diana Ross are looking for a percussionist, you ought to come down and audition” and he was such a good friend, I mean he was also auditioning! He just got me on the thing and I got the gig. When I auditioned the musical director for Diana Ross was also there and three months later when she decided to go on the road they called me for that. At the same time I was meeting people like drummers Carlos Vega, Walfredo Reyes Sr and the great Cuban bassist Cachao. I was like running from one thing to the other developing my career. That’s when I took part in that great record Ecue with Walfredo Reyes Sr and Louie Bellson. At the time I was also playing with a Latin-fusion band called Caldera. The band played occasionally in little clubs and did some tours. This was in the late 1970s. My friend Hector was in the band and when he left I ended up recording and playing live with them. What happened after was that Capitol records dropped most of their jazz catalogue and things started to change, it was the end of that fusion era. 

AP: Was recording with Caldera your introduction to the Los Angeles studio scene?

LC: Yes, after Caldera, in the early 1980s was the time when I started to get into the studio world. I found the studio scene extremely attracting, the things that you were able to do, it was so cool, that I could go in and play a track on bongos, then a track on shaker, then do another track on another instrument, I was fascinated by the fact that I was able to do all that and hear it back, it was like magic, and I was so fascinated it was like how do I get to do more of that? The players doing all the sessions at the time were people like Paulinho Da Costa, Lenny Castro, Steve Foreman and as I started meeting them, and also artists, producers and arrangers I slowly started to get into that world. Pianist Clare Fischer with whom I was playing at the time helped me understand what the scene was all about. I just kind of got out of people’s way and did my thing and when someone called me I did my best, I would go in a session and play my best and if they didn't call me back for another session, it wasn't going to be because I didn't play well, it was for some other reason, it was out of my hands. So that has been my formula for work, play honest, play the music, and for me, everything just snowballed.

AP: You've had a remarkable career in the studio scene.

LC: It has been very cool. I have worked a lot and because in playing percussion you are mostly overdubbing by yourself, you know you’re not there like a drummer who might be part of the band for a week getting all the songs down, I just get called when everything is recorded and I am there maybe for one or two days doing a whole album. Most of the time in a week I can work on two or three different cds, or at least one, and that’s pretty amazing when you look at a year’s worth of work. The other great thing of course is the wide variety of music I end up playing.

AP: Apart from playing on many records you have also played on many successful motion picture soundtracks, how did you develop the skills necessary to read charts and being able to play with an orchestra?

LC: You know I kind of feel into stuff and I quickly realised that I had to take care of business. In 1978 while I was playing with Diana Ross I met Walfredo Reyes Sr in Las Vegas and everytime I would visit there I would go to his house and just hang out with him during the day and with his son Walfredo Reyes Jr, and I remember Walfredo Sr giving me this talk like “listen you are really young, you must learn to read music, you have to take care of business here, you have to be better than what you are now, so move on.” And so everytime I went back to City College in Los Angeles and took music classes and got into percussion ensemble classes. The teacher there was David Smith who is now a professor in Maryland in the East Coast of the US and he helped me a lot. I took lots of private lessons, got books like Ted Reed’s Syncopation for the Modern Drummer, the Louie Bellson in 4/4 and the Odd Times, and I realised that if I was going to play in a film I had to be able to read a chart, and that’s how it all happened and slowly I got a few breaks and did my best. Since then I have done many recordings with the whole orchestra live, I just did one for Alan Silvestri with a 100 piece orchestra for a new Robert De Niro film. On most of those sessions my job is to play rhythmical parts, while people like percussionist Joe Porcaro and Alan Estes take care of the orchestral parts. In this last film there were some tough parts for me in the Mission Impossible fast bongo style. 

AP: And with a 100 piece orchestra there it is a tad different right?

LC: Yes it is tough , you don't want to mess it up. That was like the last big orchestral one, I also get many calls where the band is a lot smaller and I overdubb bits, more like a pop record.

AP: There are some great scores out there, one that I always remember is the one from the Eddie Murphy movie Coming To America, I can hear you on that, is wonderful playing.

LC: Yes I'm on that. We did some great bits on that, there is one scene where the big dance happens and I did that with Paulinho Da Costa, Alex Acuna and Efrain Toro, Nile Rogers produced the track. I was in a hotel room recently and it came on the television and I thought that sounded pretty good. 

AP: Knowing that recording scene in Australia first hand as a player I have to say that due to technology, budgets, and other factors, the scene has dramatically changed, what about in the US?

LC: Well I hate to say this but it is like that all around the world, that is the way it is, you know the major big studios are still working, in Los Angeles places like Ocean Way, Capitol, A&M, the rooms are fantastic, those studios are always going to be working as there'll always be movies to record and bands that need to record together. But in Hollywood which is a big centre for recording the studios that are a little smaller are hurting because you have guys in garages with a computer set up doing records. For example I have a studio in my house, I have a room, which is detached from the house, which at first became I percussion storage room, then a practice room, a place I could teach a few students, but now it has also turned into my recording studio. I have a Pro Tools system set up in there and if people want me to play on their projects, they are able to send a cd with all the data, I put it into my computer, do some tracks, burn a cd with my bits, I send it back and there is a session. I don't do that all the time but you know there are people that haven't got the budget to go to the big studios, and as I have all my instruments set up, it works. There are many television composers that work like that in Hollywood. 

AP: Similarly in Australia the television scene use to be very active, many nights a week, lots of orchestras or big bands, lots of recordings, composers and musical directors being employed, but it has gone.

LC: In the US there used to be lots of television work, the television work in the US now has gone down to 1% of what it used to be, and yes all that stuff its over. Now you have a guy who plays guitar, writes at home for a show, then decides it would be nice to get a saxophone, so they get someone, over dubs at his garage, gets paid, and that’s the session,  in television a lot of our work is gone.

AP: How do you feel about protecting your playing from people sampling your parts and reissuing them?  Is there such protection in the US for recorded percussion parts?

LC: No there is nothing you can do about it, it is also so hard to prove that. You know once in a while I get a check from someone that will have used something I played again, but so many times I am sure recordings of my parts might be reused but it is too hard to check on that. The problem with the recording scene now is also less work for many guys, you know for established guys like you and me, we are fine, but the guy that is not established, as there is less professional recording work its tough. In Los Angeles for example there used to be a scene for guys that did demos, they made a living playing on demos, and it was their way of hopefully getting to the next stage of the studio scene, well due to changes specially in the technology a composer is able to put together a pretty good demo all at home on a computer, adding loops, even singing and if bad fixing it with an auto tune plug in, so there is no need to get people to play on your demos, that work is gone.

AP: Among your many credits you were on the very successful Santana Supernatural release, how did that come about?

LC: KC Porter is an LA composer, writer, producer, singer, jack of all trades, I have know him for over twenty years and he called me as I play on his productions, and he said he was writing some tunes for a Carlos Santana record. At this stage I didn't know which songs were going to make the record. I just went in and overdubbed, and I think tow of the songs made it on the record one being Primavera. That’s how it happened Carlos wasn't there when I played, he just overdubbed his part later. There is this Mexican group called Mana who also took part in the Supernatural recording. They are huge in the style know as 'Rock en Espanol' (Spanish Rock), they are a four piece band and they call me 'el quinto Mana' (“the fifth Mana”) as I always work on their songs, they are great guys. I have done many projects with them including their Mana Unplugged for MTV which was really successful. Then when they decided they were going to tour with Santana in 1999 I also took part and was able to play with bands every night, it was pretty cool.

AP: Some memorable performances?

LC: Well I just did a tour with James Taylor and it was the greatest tour I have ever done. Beautiful music, you know everything in life is not rumba, on top of that, besides being beautiful music, James is a wonderful guy and so is everyone else  in the band, and I have been close with everyone in the band for over twenty years. So suddenly you are touring with people who have been your friends forever, it was amazing. You must hear his new record, its coming out soon, its beautiful man, a very special record.

AP: How did your Meinl connection began?

LC: I met them in Germany and decided to switch to them which I did in 1997. I have been developing some things with them like the timbales and the studio chimes. It was a good time for me to change and join a company for whom I could design instruments that responded the way that I wanted them to. You have to know that for me endorsements are about playing a particular brand because you really believe in their products. The things I have designed for them have come out exactly the way I wanted them, it has been great. I have also been doing some clinics for them around the world like here in Australia, in Europe and also in the US. They are really nice people and I am extremely happy to be associated with them.

AP: I must tell you that I really enjoyed your performance at the Ultimate Drummer’s Weekend and I was specially taken by your singing, its beautiful do you do it a lot?

LC: Once in a while. On my new record called Cuban Dreams I sing quite a bit.You know apart from playing percussion I write songs as I also play guitar and do sing. I am doing a lot of writing at the moment with bassist Abraham Laboriel Sr. We are trying to get some songs together, mainly Christian songs. We spent some time on the road in France and started to write together and so we have a lot of material, we just have to find the time to put the project together.

AP: In regards to hand drum technique how do you see the recent developments in technique like the Giovanni Hidalgo style?

LC: I personally think it is all good, you have to be open to the whole thing. As far as me I love Giovanni, I also like Tata Guines and he plays so simple. I don't know where is all going, there are people with ultimate amazing chops and others that play grooves. I feel that it should go for the music, if the style calls for acrobatics in the music, that’s great, and if it doesn't than it is great too. For example in the James Taylor gig I am doing you don't need to be a virtuoso doing paradiddles in one hand while the other hand plays sixteenths against whatever, but to be able to play that stuff tastefully is just as hard. It should go with the music played, what is needed. I love Giovanni, what he does is unbelievable, its like is not from this planet, but he is also very melodic, there are others around who are fast but are not melodic and don't sound musical to me, I feel that as long as the music thing is happening its fantastic. In any case Giovanni has the ultimate chops, the new technique, some things which we have seeing, but still he is playing songs on the congas, he is totally musical, unbelievable.

AP: What impressions are you taking back from this visit to Australia?

LC: I am really impressed with what is happening here, the Ultimate Drummer’s Weekend was fantastic, I felt a lot of love, it was so cool to see, the camaraderie from everyone I met, it was so nice and like I didn't know much about Frank Corniola and now I am a fan of his, all I can say is keep it going man.

Melbourne - February 2017

© Alex Pertout. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without prior written permission from the author. This article was first published in Drumscene magazine.

© Alex Pertout. All Rights Reserved.