Percussionist extraordinaire Luis Conte, who was born in Santiago, Cuba, certainly benefited from growing up surrounded by the Carribean island nation's unique fusion of African and European musical influences. "I was born in the southeast part of the island," says Conte, "which is the land of troubadours who sing beautiful melodies but there's also a lot of percussion in the music, so there was this fascinating mixture going on. My dad and everyone on his side of the family played instruments, and music was always in the house."
But while these early conditions unquestionably helped shape Conte into the musician that he is today, he continued to absorb many other new styles and influences as he grew older and traveled the world. His incredible versatility as well as his uncanny knack to create percussion parts that perfectly complement a song quickly made Conte into one of the most sought-after studio and touring percussionists. Since the late '70s he has played on records by A-list artists like Jackson Browne, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, Phil Collins, Elton John, Madonna, Sergio Mendes, Pat Metheny, Diana Ross, and Carlos Santana. Conte regularly plays on more than a hundred sessions each year, including many scores for Hollywood films, and he's also the percussionist in the orchestra that accompanies dancers on ABC's hit series "Dancing with the Stars."
Despite being so heavily in demand in the studio and on stage, Conte has recorded several acclaimed albums on his own, including his 1978 debut effort Black Forest, his 1987 album La Cocina Caliente, and his stunning 2000 tribute to his Cuban roots, Cuban Dreams. This year he completed his seventh effort as a band leader, En Casa de Luis, which showcases his songwriting and multi-instrumental talents.
"The new album was inspired by my recent return to Cuba," says Conte, who has been a resident of Los Angeles since arriving there in 1969. "I hadn't been back there for about 40 years. It was an unbelievable experience. Now I plan to go back there every year. Cuban traditional son music is my first love. Son is the grandfather of salsa music. It's based around the clave, hand drums, the guitar, and vocals. That's it, basically. I love playing that music, and whenever I go back to Cuba I'm in heaven when I get to hang out and play with musicians who really know how to play son music."
Although Conte has played just about every style of popular music imaginable, including adult contemporary, hip-hop, blues, new age, funk, folk, alternative, country, hard rock, jazz, and punk, he's never really abandoned his Cuban roots, which remain the foundation of his versatile percussion style. Conte says that he can't remember exactly when he started playing music.
"My grandmother lived on the other side of the island in Havana," he recalls, "and she would bring me an instrument every time she would come to visit the family. The first thing she ever brought me was a güiro. Then she brought me a set of bongos, then a set of maracas, and I started building up an arsenal of percussion instruments. The guys in my neighborhood had a carnival ensemble and they played a lot of percussion. Whenever they practiced I would go to where the drums were. When I was six years old the guys made a mini conga for me and gave it to me. I focused on hand percussion—instruments like conga, bongos, shakers, güiros, and maracas."
Conte played music throughout his childhood, but he didn't start to take music seriously until he arrived in Los Angeles and started joining bands formed by his classmates at Hollywood High School. "I played a little rhythm guitar and some percussion," says Conte. "Living in L.A. was great because there is so much variety here. There are so many different ethnic types of people. I remember seeing Airto Moreira playing a berimbau at a club, and I had never heard anything like that before. That's how I gravitated towards other things and found other types of music and instruments.
"I met this guy who knew about salsa bands," he continues. "I made friends with Hector Andrade, who is a fantastic percussionist who used to play with the great salsa artist Willie Colon. Then I started meeting other people and everything started snowballing. I heard about auditions and tried out for different bands. This dude from Panama named Azuquita was friends with the boxer Roberto Duran, and he wrote a song for him. I went in the studio to record congas, and I ended up playing maracas, claves, and timbales on top of that. I didn't even know you could do that before. When that happened I knew that I wanted to pursue a career recording music."
By playing on as many recordings during the '70s as he could, Conte met many great jazz and Latin musicians and quickly formed friendships with them. When he finally was given the opportunity to record his debut album in 1978, he enlisted many of his friends—including drummers Alex Acuña, Jeff Pocaro, and Carlos Vega, bassists Jimmy Johnson and Abe Laboriel, horn players Brandon Fields and Walt Fowler, and guitarist Mark Goldenberg—to play on the album. Those friendships still endure over all these years, and Fowler and Johnson joined up with Conte once again to play on his latest effort, En Casa de Luis.
Another enduring—albeit more recent—friendship is Conte's bond with Meinl percussion products. Conte started endorsing Meinl products during the mid '90s and has collaborated with Meinl on a variety of artist signature instruments, which include congas, bongos, chimes, shakers, and timbales.
"I met the guys from Meinl percussion in Germany when I went to Marktoberdorf to do a drum camp for a week," Conte recalls. "Terry Bozzio and Dave Weckl were there, and a lot of drum companies showed up because all these great drummers were at the camp. I hadn't seen Meinl's instruments before then, and I fell in love with their Woodcraft drums, which are made out of real German oak. Man, they sounded so good, and the people at Meinl were really nice to me. They gave me the chance to design my own instrument, so that got me interested in endorsing their products."
The first product Conte designed for Meinl was a set of hammered brass timbales. "It was a blessing," he raves. "I got to design an instrument that was like I always wanted it to be. The lugs are different. Because it's hammered it has this cascara, which is a certain sound you get when you play on the shell with a stick, that I couldn't get from the timbales made by anybody else. We figured out a way to get that sound. Then we designed a mark tree that wasn't so tonal and doesn't produce such distinct notes. Most mark trees or bell trees are so tonal and distinctively pitched that they clash with the key of the song when you're recording in the studio. I didn't want that. I wanted something that blends with the music."
Conte's Meinl Artist Signature Series congas and bongos are some of the company's most popular products. Both products are made of wood and feature traditional TTR rims and genuine buffalo or cow skin heads. His most recent project with Meinl has been the design of a set of shakers for use in the studio. "I go to so many sessions where the producer will say, ‘Oh man, do you have a softer-sounding one?' I'll try something else but it may be too soft, too bright, or too dark. From doing so many sessions I've come up with three different sets of shakers that work. I don't want to show up with a big box of shakers. I just want to show up with three shakers and have it all covered. One of the sets works perfect for live performances as well."
The wide variety of hand percussion instruments on the market today offers newcomers and drummers who want to expand their roles a daunting challenge when it comes to putting together a potential percussion arsenal. Conte offers two basic suggestions for anyone confused by all the market has to offer: keep it simple and buy the best quality you can afford.
"If you're really serious about being a percussionist, you should only get professional model instruments," he says. "Go right into it if you can afford it. You want something that's heavy duty from the start because you're going to move up to that level anyway. If you can only afford one instrument, get a conga. They come in three sizes—quinto, conga, and tumba. I would buy the conga, which has an 11 ¾-inch head, because that drum is versatile enough where you can tighten the head so it sounds like a quinto or loosen it so it sounds like a tumba. It depends on the groove that you want to play. After that I recommend getting a djembe, which is a very beautiful instrument. Then get some bongos, timbales, shakers, and a tambourine, which is very important. That's a basic setup that should take care of most of the sounds you need."