On a Caribbean Christmas night many years ago, the hands of six-year-old Luis Conte rested after having finally blazed away on a drum of their own. The conga, given as a gift by a local drummer, had been heated earlier that day by Conte’s father to tighten the head. A lifetime away from his native Cuba, and many recording sessions later, the heat now generated by Conte’s seasoned hands is probably enough to replace anything nature could produce, short of burning the calfskin away.
Conte is the real deal, the number-one on-call percussionist in the City of Angels, with a résumé that reads like an encyclopedia of pop music: Madonna, Seal, Steve Winwood, Herb Alpert, Celine Dion, Jackson Browne, Toto, Chaka Khan, Terence Trent D’Arby, Rod Stewart, k.d. lang, Tania Maria, Robert Palmer, Sergio Mendes, Sade, Whitney Houston, Aaron Neville and The Yellowjackets, to name just a few. He’s also played on the Tonight Show, Fridays and Arsenio Hall, and has movie soundtrack credits that include The Mambo Kings, Rain Man, Coming To America, Waiting To Exhale, Poetic Justice and Mission Impossible.
Nice work if you can get it, and the truth is that only a handful of percussionists work at this level of the music business. How does he do it? He thinks about layers, connections, unobtrusive flavors, and having two feet on the ground. The music begins, and Conte doesn’t just play; he gives. He doesn’t merely listen; he disappears and becomes the movement. Impulse, feeling and sound. That’s the three-step he knows best, el baile primero.
And, he might be also thinking about rice and beans.
“That’s what Ray Charles told me once,” Conte laughs. “He called me for a session, says he needs ’a good CON-go player,’ so I showed up at his studio in South Central L.A., and it’s just me and him! No engineers, no nothing, and I’m thinking, ’Oh man, I’m going to be here all day.’ Then Ray starts grabbing mikes, setting it all up, running the whole show, and when we’re done listening to the playback, he says ’Yep, I knew it. You’ve got to eat rice and beans to play like that.’” More likely, it’s the sense of community, culture and connection that brings out the pops, pings and slaps that immediately distinguish home cooking from fast food.
Conte began his drummer’s journey in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, home of a music style known as son, the root of all salsa. Once a year, his neighborhood’s comparsa (percussion group) would compete with others in a festival. Conte and his father would go to the park and listen to the men rehearse as they passed on a tradition that demanded faithful reproduction of sounds, shapes and colors. Conte eventually became a member of his neighborhood’s comparsa, treasuring every minute and note. “I was also playing to the radio,” he recalls. “We could get Top 40 stations from Jamaica, so there are two strong sides of me: the Cuban, and the pop music side.”
Groups like Pello El Afrokán, Los Papines, Trio Matamoros and his conga idol, Tata Guines and Orchestra Arago, were the seeds and soil of Conte’s Latin musical foundation. The Beatles, Motown and a Puerto Rican group, Cortijo Y Su Combo, helped scratch the r&b itch. At 16, that itch became a full-body rash, and Conte left Cuba for Hollywood.
Conte’s reputation and chops next landed him in the percussion chair of Caldera, alongside drummer Carlos Vega. Two albums and touring on Capitol Records’ Latin experiment paid off well and helped to firmly establish Conte’s name around town. It also allowed him to land in unexpected pockets of opportunity.
“I’d met Alex Acuña here in L.A.,” he recalls, “and one day he called me, all excited. ’Man, you’ve got to come down to the studio! Walfredo Reyes, Sr., his son Walfredo Jr., Harry Blazer, Cachao, Emil Richards, Manolo Badrena and Louis Bellson, we’re all here rehearsing for a record.’ So I showed up, grabbed a couple of drums and went at it. It got me into the mix of Louis Bellson’s ’Ecue.’ It also connected me with Francisco Aguabella, someone I’d call my mentor. He’s very knowledgeable, a great percussionist, a man who knows Afro-Cuban folkloric rhythms. He’s a master of that down-home stuff. Both he and Walfredo Reyes, Sr. were a big influence.”
The gravity of Conte’s well-rounded talent, plus his 100% audition batting average, continued to drop him into diverse and challenging percussion worlds. He’s been Madonna’s on-the-road Latin connection since 1986, supporting her long-time drummer Jonathan Moffett and relative newcomer Omar Hakim on all the tours since then.
“It’s like working with the president of IBM,” Conte explains, respecting the vision of his enigmatic employer. “She’s in control of everything, a very on-hands artist, even choosing the color of curtains. She’s a tough cookie, very demanding, and she works harder than anybody else in her entourage. So if you’re a hard worker, do your gig and aren’t late, things are fine.” Chaka Khan is another diva with whom Conte has ignited a stage and definitely respects. He calls her El Natural, a woman who can “smoke five packs of cigs, drink 20 cups of coffee and still sing. I mean, she can sing.”
While Conte’s hand-drumming chops came from a roots environment, it was the variations of those roots that shaped his definition of a world musician – someone who could paint with any color of the palette. “Latin music covers a lot of ground,” Conte explains. “In Cuba, you have this kind, in Brazil that kind, in Colombia another kind. The learning really never stops, and sometimes I’d wonder if I really had it down. Then I did a session with the Manhattan Transfer, produced by Arif Mardin, the man. He really dug it, and that’s when I realized, ’Wow, I can play this stuff.’”
And play he did. When Conte was beginning his climb up the session ladder during the day, he spent a few nights – as did many local studio guys – in the legendary Baked Potato with David Garfield and Karizma. If you lived in Los Angeles in the early ’80s, the learning and listening opportunities in this tightly-packed Studio City club were phenomenal. Conte discovered that fact first-hand the night he shared the stage with a drummer whom most musicians would have traded half a career to blaze with. “Playing alongside Jeff Porcaro really took you to another level,” he says. “Where I was when I met him, I went to a whole other level after that. Both times it was incredible. When Jeff played the drums, the air was moving. His feel was just amazing, and my time got better because of it.
“Steve Gadd does the same thing. He’s a different animal, but the common denominator is that the air around him is moving the pocket that becomes the groove. He’s playing the music, not just the drums. He’s giving, not just doing. The man is also very precise, and playing sessions with him made me think about it a lot.”
Those and a few other percussive thoughts were captured on Conte’s 1994 instructional video, produced by Latin Percussion. It could have gone in many directions – especially a commercial one – but Conte kept his educational target clearly focused, without compromising. “Money is important,” he says, “and you’ve got to feed your family, but more importantly, I really believe you’ve got to keep your priorities right. So, the video is not really for beginners. It’s more for somebody who already plays. I wanted to show what most people cannot learn in school.
“I tried to show realistic recording situations, a lot of recording techniques, how to go r&b or go Latin, how to choose colors and how to build a track. We did two live performances to show how to translate and perform all the multi-track percussion stuff you would lay down in the studio. It was a lot of work, too. I wrote the script, figured out camera shots, recording and the whole thing.”
Conte had been offering much of this information through classes he taught at the Dick Grove School of Music, as well as clinics sponsored by Latin Percussion and Zildjian. He also teaches privately at his home when his schedule allows. “I really like casting out information, so I’ve been doing the LP clinics, one or two a year for the last 15 years. I start out playing authentic Afro-Cuban patterns, then show how to play certain beats, and finally take questions. I usually have about 30 percussion instruments with me.
“The main thing I stress for drummers who attend the clinics, as well as for hand drummers, is to play the music and play time. Make it feel great. The difference between the men and boys is to be able to play a 4/4 groove for 5 minutes, non-stop. Concentrate on how this is going to feel rather than drowning the band with ratamacues and having your legs do five things at once.
“I tell them to make sure they do their homework, learn how to play a simple groove, make it feel incredible. Vinnie Colaiuta is a perfect example. I play with him a lot, and while the man has more chops than he can use in a lifetime, he also feels incredible.”
Squeezed in-between the sessions, tours, clinics and lessons, Conte has found the time to record three original solo albums. He co-produced them with Jeff Weber: La Cocina Caliente and Black Forest (Denon), and his most recent Japanese release, The Road (WeberWorks). After so many years of sitting on the other side of the recording booth, how does Conte feel about finally occupying the Captain’s chair? “Incredible. I’m listening to playbacks thinking, ’Man, this is my stuff!’ It’s really rewarding, and I’m very happy with all of the albums. La Cocina Caliente was recorded live to two-track, and the others were done multi-track. We’re going to try to do the next record more live, to try to capture the feeling of the first, done back in ’89.”
Conte got his solo recording deals by doing session work for Weber, who has strong music industry connections in Japan. When the execs at Denon came to Weber looking to sign four different recording acts, they specifically requested a world music group. Weber recommended Conte & Friends, and so the execs came to a gig to see where the money would be going. “By the first set, they were smiling,” Conte recalls, “and believe me, so was I.”
But his smile couldn’t have been any bigger than when he won a Grammy for his work on Pat Metheny’s 1995 album We Live Here. “I met Pat through his bass player, Steve Rodby,” Conte says. “Pat is a fantastic musician and very meticulous about what sounds we were going to use, and we knew this was going to be a masterpiece of a musical painting. When we created parts, we really cared about making sure that the red dot in the corner was the correct amount of red dot.”
Beyond which heads a percussionist uses or how many toys are in his percussion collection lies the key to balancing out a life of high-pressure sessions and endless touring. For Conte, knowing when not to play doesn’t just apply to the gig. “I’ve really learned to set time aside for myself, even looking at free time as work so I have it ’booked’ in my head. I also don’t go out for long tours now because I have a family, and I feel like my heart is in my home. But my advice to the young cats is this: Now is the time. Do it all, don’t worry so much about the bread. Just think of the travel and all that playing experience.”
It’s sage advice for aspiring percussionists, and Conte is aware that most of them dream about trading places with him, even for one choice session. But now that he can look back on a long career of rich performing experiences, we asked whom he would choose for his dream band, if he could pick any players on the planet. “Oh man, I can choose anybody? Cool! Okay, first I’d line up Chucho Valdez on piano, then a guy named Cachao on bass. He is to Latin what Jaco was to jazz. Next, we’d have Orestes Vilató on timbales, Changuito on bongos, Giovanni Hildago on percussion and Steve Gadd on drums. Then it’d be Andy Narell on steel drums, Paquito on horns, Walt Fowler playing trumpet, Pat Metheny on guitar and Lyle Mays on keys. Now that would be a dream.”