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Luis Conte

The Value of Networking and Niceness in the Music Game

As a child growing up in Santiago de Cuba, Luis Conte was surrounded by music. The radio was always on in his house, and someone was always playing guitar, piano, percussion, or singing. There was music everywhere, and it seeped into his pores, into his brain through osmosis, he says. After the 1959 Cuban Revolution, while the music never stopped, it certainly caused many things to change, including the entire direction of young Luis’s life.

For one, Communist rule banned a lot of Western music. “We had to hide to listen to [rock ‘n’ roll, pop, and jazz],” Conte says. “My dad had this German-made shortwave radio, and he would help us find the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and other stations. My friends would come to my house and we would go into this little room where you could play the radio and nobody would hear, and we would listen to the Beatles.” He and his friends found one show, broadcast in Spanish, that would play all the current hits, “so I heard the Stones, the Mamas and the Papas, the Beach Boys, you know, everybody, and I just loved that stuff.”

The Communist revolution had another effect on Conte’s life: One month before he turned 15, his parents sent him away from his family and his home country to avoid the mandatory military draft that started at age 15, to find freedom in another land. He went first to Spain, where he stayed with Jesuit priests for four months, then to Hollywood, California, where he moved in with his father’s third cousin—a man he had never met—who acted as his guardian.

In American high school, Conte says he “got the bug” and realized how much he loved music. He played guitar in a high school garage band, and of course he played drums— “because it’s just what you did in Cuba”—but he had not decided to pursue music as a career. He went to Los Angeles City College, taking the basic classes, and after a few music classes he decided he wanted to be a professional player.

The Turning Point

“Here’s the strange thing: I’m going to a night class one night and suddenly I hear conga drums. This is the first time I had actually heard a live conga drum since I was in Cuba, because percussion was not really a big thing in the US back in the 60s and early 70s,” Conte says. “The African-American Student Union was throwing an event, and I just heard the congas and I forgot about my class. When [the musicians] took a break, I went up to the conga player and said, ‘Hey man, where did you buy these drums?’ He told me, and then I asked him if I could play his. And let me tell you something, that was the moment when I thought, ‘What am I doing? I’ve got to buy one of these drums; I’ve got to get into this!’ That was the turning point.”

Conte bought himself some conga drums, started going to clubs, meeting people, networking, sitting in on sets and playing wherever he could—weddings, parties, clubs. He was evolving his musical style, which integrates the powerful rhythms of his native Cuba with the American necessities of American pop music. As a hand percussionist, Conte plays a myriad of instruments: conga, bongo, timbale, maraca, clave, guiro, bombo leguero, shakers, tabla drum, pandeiro, and more. “Being a percussionist is like being a geographer,” he says. “These instruments come from all over the world—Africa, Brazil, Colombia, the Middle East. I try to cover it all.”

Conte’s first break, when he really got his name out onto the scene, was the day he joined Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) in 1974. “I figured, there’s a musicians’ union, and if I go there, I may find a gig,” he says. “Well, guess what? I’ll never forget this: I run into this guy I played with at the clubs; I didn’t know he was a union guy. I said, ‘Hey Johnny, how are you?’ He said, ‘There was a couple people here looking for somebody to play percussion.’” They had left their number and Conte immediately went to a pay phone and called.

“Being a percussionist is like being a geographer. These instruments come from all over the world—Africa, Brazil, Colombia, the Middle East. I try to cover it all.”

The people were the band The Hues Corporation, who had just recorded a new song called, “Rock the Boat,” and they were doing auditions for a percussionist. Conte got a ride from a friend to the house where auditions were being held, and he got the gig. It turned out to be a gig for the band’s RCA Records promotional tour throughout the northeastern US. “Little did I know that they had just recorded the record and it was going to be a hit,” he says.

Conte spent a year on the road with The Hues Corporation, playing great venues with star musical acts, doing television shows like Soul Train, and constantly meeting new people, networking with musicians. When the tour took the band to Europe, Conte could not go because he was in the US on a Cuban passport and could not get a visa, so he went home to LA. After that tour, Conte spend a lot of his time hanging out at Local 47 headquarters. Back in the early 70s, Local 47 had three or four rehearsal rooms and members had to visit the local in person to pick up their checks. “I remember seeing Don Ellis and his orchestra rehearsing there a bunch of times,” Conte says. “I met Chino Valdes and got advice from him. I remember meeting Luis Miranda. So, if you wanted to see Victor Feldman, you just go to the union and maybe meet him. I thought it was a cool place to be.”

The Value of Networking

Conte also was constantly performing at local clubs and continuing what he felt was an extremely important pursuit of networking. “Networking is not just calling people; it means to be a nice guy, to get along with people, talk to people, meet people, and always be nice,” he says. “That’s advice I got from my dad. My dad always used to say the important thing in life is to be a nice guy and be pleasant with people, and that was one of the best things he could have ever said to me.”

Through Conte’s use of networking, playing in LA clubs got him an audition with The Supremes, which earned him work playing for Diana Ross when she performed solo. By 1987, Conte was constantly employed, but after a chance social meeting at a Christmas party, his career went to a new level after being invited to audition for Madonna and getting the gig playing on her Who’s That Girl World Tour. “God only knows, you know? I went to a Christmas party, and that guy calls so-and-so, and he says you should call this guy, and that’s how it works,” Conte says.

In addition to playing with Madonna, Conte has worked with major artists including James Taylor (Local 802, New York City), Dave Matthews (Local 123, Richmond, VA), Kenny Loggins (Local 47), Eric Clapton, and Elton John, among countless others. His long and varied career has also included studio work performing on multiple Hollywood film scores and successful albums of other artists, as well as being a bandleader and producing his own solo work. Among his numerous accolades, Conte has won one Grammy and been nominated for three others; he has been named Percussionist of the Year six times in Drum Magazine and four times in the Modern Drummer Reader’s Poll; and in 2018 he was named Cultural Ambassador of Instituto Latino de la Música (ILM).

Some of his most memorable professional moments, however, have been on the stage. Conte says playing live in front of stadium crowds of 200,000 people (as he did with Madonna) or 300,000 people (as he did with James Taylor) is an unreal experience. Playing with amazing artists is another highlight of his career, he says. He remembers moments when he played with the Cuban jazz band Irakere.

“These are major players who came to the US to play 15-20 years ago, during the Cuban embargo. They were doing a clinic at UCLA, but their percussionist couldn’t get a visa. I got a call and was asked, ‘Do you want to play with them?’” Conte recalls. “Now I’ve listened to this band and literally know every song, every record, every note that’s been recorded. So, when I went there … I got there 10 minutes before they’re supposed to play [because a recording gig went long]; I missed soundcheck. They’re all standing there ready to get on stage and I walk in and I was like a groupie. I say, ‘I can’t believe I’m here playing with you guys; I know all your music.’ And they’re just looking at me like: ‘Wow. Okay. Let’s play.’” After the first song ended, the bandleader Chucho Valdés turns around and says to Conte, “Hey man, everything you were telling us is true, you really do know our music!” “Those are the moments that are really
meaningful to me musically,” Conte says.

Going Through the Union

Conte does not have a manager, and has never had one, saying he has never found a need to pay someone 15% when he made his career successful on his own. Of course, there are dangers in the musical world, such as not letting yourself be taken advantage of by managers or in contracts. In addition to the community and solidarity aspect of being an AFM member, Conte says his 46 years as a member of Local 47 have especially benefitted from the union’s help in getting health insurance and in receiving residuals and special payments for his recording work.

“In the recording situation, that’s the deal. There’s a lot of young players who have asked me, ‘Why do you have to do it union?’ Sometimes you get calls from somebody who’ll say, ‘Hey, we’re doing this; do you want to go through the union or can we just pay straight?’ I always say, ‘No, we’re going through the union,’” Conte says. “I just got a residual check from a song I recorded with Yolanda Adams probably more than 10 years ago. I don’t even remember what the song was—and that’s why you do union work. That’s when they come through for you; some of these guys don’t get this. The union is a body that protects us in this business of music.”

Since COVID hit, Conte has been doing what most musicians have: practicing his craft and working in his home studio. When not playing music—and moreso lately due to the pandemic—Conte is an avid chess player. “One thing I love about chess is that it’s a true gentleman’s game,” he says. “There’s no cheating; there’s a respect and a politeness to it that is awesome. And then on top of that there’s just so much information. There are so many ways you can move, so many complications to different openings and things. Once you get into it, and understand what it is, it’s just fantastic, and you can spend hours.”

Basically, Conte says, there is not much happening in the musical world now. “Just stay healthy and exercise, study, work on your craft and don’t give up playing,” he says. “Keep your eyes on the prize; keep the faith; that’s where we’re at right now.”


Luis Conte endorses:

  • Meinl Percussion (Conte also has his own signature series of instruments)
  • Zildjian cymbals and sticks
  • Remo drumheads
  • Gibraltar hardware

National Symphony of Cuba Forced to Cancel US Tour

The National Symphony of Cuba announced that its 2019 US tour is canceled due to difficulties in obtaining visas for its artists. Last month, the US announced the withdrawal of 60% of its Cuban diplomats is now permanent. They were originally withdrawn following mysterious “health attacks” in Havana, which harmed at least 24 Americans.

In October 2017 the US State Department ordered the withdrawal of all nonessential embassy personnel. Due to lack of employees, the US Embassy in Cuba was forced to halt visa processing. Now, Cubans hoping to travel to the US must seek visas through US embassies in other countries. The downsizing of the staff, combined with a Travel Advisory issued by  the US State Department  warning Americans to reconsider travel to the island, have had a significant effect on Cuba’s economy as well.

Unplugged in Cuba: Local 5 Member Plays Havana’s Streets

Local 5 (Detroit, MI) member Ed Zelenak (far right) plays with Cuban street musicians near the Ambos Mundos Hotel in Old Havana, where Ernest Hemingway famously stayed and wrote some of his most celebrated novels.

“My father taught me the old standards, swing, and Latin-influenced music,” says guitarist Ed Zelenak of Local 5 (Detroit, MI), adding that it served him well on his 2017 visit to Cuba. He seized upon the opportunity to visit the island when the US embargo was lifted.

In Old Havana, it’s not uncommon to find American and Cuban musicians casually playing together on the streets. Drawing on the dance music his father taught him, he says, “I fit right in with these guys. Playing with Cuban musicians, we were kindred spirits—I felt like we were soul mates.”

Havana’s Splendor

The streets and alleys of the city virtually echo with the sounds of Nat King Cole, The Beatles, Sam Cooke, and the Eagles. “People want to hear Hank Williams, Bob Marley, Four Tops, nothing modern,” Zelenak says. Cuba is a dual society—boasting old world architecture, art galleries, swanky hotels, and famous performing arts venues. But music is as rich a tradition in the streets and with the average person. “If I were in Cuba today, I’d be a street musician, instead of playing in a concert hall.”

Although the country is slowly becoming unfiltered—WiFi is only available in a handful of public spaces—journalists, artists, and musicians have become creative in gaining access to the world. Cubans’ relationship to music is unique. It’s continuous, Zelenak says. “Long after the band packs up after playing in front of the bars and restaurants, you can hear them singing on their way home.” They play more traditional instruments, like the three-string guitar, the classic tres guitar, horns and trumpets, and Cuban percussion instruments—some more primitive than others. He says, “They’ll play sound effects on cow skulls.”

Union Family

Zelenak, whose entire family had been involved in the union and Local 5 from the 1920s—now including his son Elliott—says, “In my street travels, I spent a lot of time talking to musicians and writers about unions and getting compensated. Many talked about secret associations—informal groups that meet to support each other. Unions are still a long way off. The objective one day would be to set up rates for performers.”

At this point, the money musicians make, he explains, is tied to the restaurant industry. “On almost every corner, there’s a band playing; they’re there every night. They’d roll a piano out. Guys would have trumpets and trombones. They’re there to attract business.”

Although the conversations about unions seemed promising, he says musicians with whom he corresponded were reluctant to continue the dialogue. In addition, Trump Administration initiatives to restrict commerce between the two nations may destroy hopes of organizing, he says.

Zelenak was introduced to music by his father who had a big band post WWII in which the teenage Zelenak played guitar and piano. It was a meaningful way for father and son to connect, but one that ended abruptly when his father died. Zelenak was only 18 years old. Music helped him survive the loss of his father, but also provided a practical motivation. He took over his father’s band, which comprised two of his three brothers. Playing gigs at night, eventually he managed to put himself through law school.

Today, he still leads two bands, a nine-piece dance band called Little Davy and the Diplomats (minus his brother Dave Zelenak, who is now a judge) and a four-piece combo with fellow Local 5 members Ted Blankenship, George Katsakis, and Al Ayoub.

Music Pays Off

Throughout a busy law career, he continued to pursue music. Recently, Zelenak tried his hand at country music (with a lawyerly spin) penning the song “Repossess My Love.” Several years ago, he wrote “Oblique Samba,” which he describes as a contemporary version of “The Girl from Ipanema”—the story of a street musician serenading a cleaning woman at a hotel in Old Havana. He got the opportunity to introduce the song in Cuba first on the street with other musicians and then at the Hotel Santa Isabella where it was warmly received.

“They just love talking about music, from the hotel clerks and bellmen to women working in the rooms. Music is something everybody loves there,” he says.

Nowadays, he plays a lot of hotel lobbies, which he prefers, saying, “It’s restoring the personal touch of live music. I’ve played in hotels all over the world.”

In fact, Zelenak just returned from Jamaica, where he performs every New Year’s Eve at the Day-O Plantation with legendary reggae and calypso artists Paul Hurlock, Ernie Smith, and Cabot Paul, all members of the Jamaica Federation of Musicians. Although he would love to return to Cuba, with stricter regulations in place, one needs State Department approval. In the meantime, he says, he’ll be in Los Angeles and then Paris in the spring.

“I look at my approach to music as a dual language—romance—both in the writing, the lyrics, and the performing.” He recalls what his son once said to him, “Music is an international handshake.” Zelenak adds, “You don’t have to speak their language, music does all the talking.”

Local 5 members work at the Detroit Athletic Club (L to R) Ted Blankenship (upright bass), George Katsakis (tenor sax), Ed Zelenak (keyboard), and Al Ayoub (guitar).

Cuban Rhythms for Percussion & Drumset: The Essentials

Cuban Rhythms for Percussion & Drumset: The Essentials

Cuban Rhythms for Percussion & Drumset: The EssentialsLocal 406 (Montreal, PQ) percussionist Aldo Mazza wrote this method book from his 16 years of experience facilitating KoSA study programs in Cuba and working with many important Cuban drummers in developing rhythms. He presents popular, authentic rhythms along with conga “language” exercises to build sound and groove. The book comes with a disc of 75 play-along audio tracks and 30 video clips, plus, access to charts for two original songs composed and recorded in Havana by Cuban drummer Giraldo Piloto and his group Klimax.

Cuban Rhythms for Percussion & Drumset: The Essentials, by Aldo Mazza, KoSA Publications, www.kosamusic.com.

Minnesota Orchestra Plans Trip to Cuba

Minnesota Orchestra may be the first US orchestra to play in Cuba, following the announcement of normalization of relations with the country. Musicians agreed to postpone a vacation week in order to schedule the trip, which was funded by board member Marilyn Carlson Nelson and her husband, Glen Nelson. The orchestra has two concerts programmed at the Cubadisco Festival in May. Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra is the most recent US orchestra to perform in Cuba. That trip took place in 1999.