It’s never easy to incorporate your native roots into the demands of popular music. But one musician who’s been able to do that consistently is Luis Conte. He’s won the ‘percussionist of the year’ award from numerous magazines multiple times and is one of the most sought after session musicians. Here’s what one of the most renowned percussionists had to say in his interview with Indian Drummer.
ID – Firstly, regarding your online endeavour (The Luis Conte School of Percussion from ArtistWorks) in bringing in everything from classroom training to online training about skills and technique, can you tell us a bit about how this experience is different?
Luis Conte – Well, you know we started about 7 weeks ago so it’s a good thing for me and it’s great. I have a quite a bit of students who’re just starting out. There’s one in Northern California, someone in Santa Monica which is where I live and people from Germany and Malta. It’s a wonderful thing because I feel I can share with the whole world, anybody who’d like to learn from me, it’s fantastic. You can see my videos, you can video me back and I can video you back and tell you exactly “maybe try this” or “this is very good, etc, etc”. You can get more infomation here : http://www.
ID – How do you take care of foot technique or a particular technique with the hands and see if they’re exactly following the correct method.
Luis Conte – I film a lot of lessons from the very very beginning to intermediate and then advanced. It’s all explained on videos. I have the hand explanation, the sounds; you can see it in 4 camera angles. If you were to be my student you can video yourself going “Hey Mr.Conte! Can you tell me if everything is O.K?” and I can video you back saying “Well yeah it’s beautiful” or “You can move your hand to the left” or something on that lines. And you can see it all on the videos.
ID – Another question in the same context, percussion is more about feel or percussion is more about the way you approach your instrument, say a congo or a bongo. So how do you take care of this aspect of percussion in your lessons? You can teach a technique but how do you communicate on things like a feeling or approach?
Luis Conte – That’s a very good question and that’s a very difficult thing to teach. The best that I can do and this is if you’re doing your lessons with me online of if you’re coming to my house in person. The best that I can do is talk to you about it and make you listen to certain things and be conscious of it because in a way feeling is something you have to be born with, you have to have it. You can get better at it, like your timing and your feeling is just with expression. All you can do is pretty much talk. I do make sure I talk about it in my lessons and I have tracks. And it’s not only Latin music; it could be a pop song. You can hear me play it and then you can go into the tracks and play it yourself & record it yourself. Hopefully that will help. That’s a very difficult thing to teach man, the feeling you know.
ID – So we did a small survey here and it’s a common question which everyone as a percussionist wants to ask. How do you count in large bands? You’ve toured with Phil Collins extensively and other big bands as well. How do you make sure that you’re recognised because there are so many sounds in such large bands? How do you tackle it?
Luis Conte – Well, I’ve actually never thought of that. It’s a very simple answer, it’s music, whether it’s Phil Collins or a 9 piece band or Madonna or whatever or anybody. You could look at a symphonic orchestra, one with Cellos and Violins. I’m just one of those speeches of musical instruments. I don’t believe in you going and playing in a band on you going like you have to stand out. If you’re standing out then maybe it should be your band. But it’s not your band, you’re just playing the music, you’re just playing your parts.
ID – Well yes but in a gamut of instruments how do you differentiate your instrument as far as sound is concerned. How do you approach compositions that involve an orchestra or a 5-6 member band? Like compositions that have these elements that bring in extra value to the song.
Luis Conte – It’s very easy. You like food and cooking?
ID – Yeah of course!
Luis Conte – Okay, so I am the salt & pepper in the food, or the cumin or the extra paprika. You have your meal and that’s the music, that’s the song. I call and I go “This need a bit more salt or pepper”. So I add the extra spice.
ID – That’s a good way to put it. As a percussionist what is your favourite component in your setup. So to add that extra flavour, which is the instrument you reach for at the first of use the most.
Luis Conte – Oh there’s no answer to that. There’s no favourite. I do a lot of movies and do a lot of big records. My stock comes in a very big truck. I have a lot of flavours. (Laughs)
ID – Going back a bit, can you tell us a bit about how it all started? Why were you inclined towards percussion?
Luis Conte – I was born in Cuba which is very beautiful island. The music of Cuba is very strong in percussion. Percussion is a very big part of the music. There are so many styles. As a little boy I would hear people play in the streets and as a small boy I always wanted to go where the drums were. I would tell my father to take me there and he’d go like “there are too many people drinking and going crazy there.” I would make him take me there. It’s a lot of drums, mainly congas and claves and things like that. So being around all that music where I was born and till I was 15 years old. Music is a big part of people & the culture and I just loved it. My grandmother was the one who’d always buy me an instrument. She bought me a bongo and a guitar, etc, etc. I love to play guitar. It started like that and that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.
ID – When did you realize that this was the thing for you?
Luis Conte – Well when I realized that I really wanted to just play music to live, I was very late. I just graduated from high school but I was playing since I was 6 years old, all the time, just because I liked it. My father was a doctor and other people of my family are doctors. I thought I was gonna go to medical school. I never thought I’m gonna live playing music. Plus everybody in my family plays, so we’d get together and play. But then when I graduated I started to think what I was going to do. Well I don’t wanna be a computer guy or a doctor. It was very easy. Alright I’m gonna be a musician. (Laughs)
ID – Was there any hesitation?
Luis Conte – Nope.
ID – Did you have any professional training in music before you graduated?
Luis Conte – Good question. In percussion, no schooling. I did study when I went to college. I took piano, musicianship and theory and all that. But I used to play the guitar since I was 12. So through the guitar I have knowledge of reading music, notes, values and etc. It’s a different thing. As far as percussion, I’m self-taught.
Luis Conte – It’s different on every occasion. I’m one of those people who don’t like to play the same thing twice. So I try to be as spontaneous as possible. You can look at this Phil Collins video called Drums, Drums and more Drums from the last tour we did. The whole percussion piece has Phil starting it, then Chester plays and then I play. It’s a piece of music, a piece of percussion. We composed all kinds of parts for
this. But in the middle of this, there’s a solo. That percussion solo is free, you know. The only thing is that particular solo I always started playing timbales and finished playing congas. But the rest of it is not according to plan. It’s according to feel. When I used to tour playing jazz in the 90s, that was a total jazz gig, totally free. Sometimes I used to start the solo swinging, sometimes with the shaker. It doesn’t matter. It was totally free. As much as possible I try to do that always. The situation for example with Phil Collins, for that one we worked it out with Timbales in the starting and finish with the congas but that wasn’t the only piece of structure to it.
ID – It’s said that to be a great percussionist, one needs to be a great listener first. What do you think about this?
Luis Conte – That’s definitely very important because you have to be listener and so does everybody else. It’s music and the reaction. So you should be able to react to everything else that’s going around you. It’s very important.
ID – What kind of difference do you see with the percussionists of the previous generation like a decade or two back and the ones today?
Luis Conte – Well things change. Like if you get into Afro-Cuban, you don’t need to go back too much. One of the greatest players used to play on one conga drum but now if you go to a show you’ll see people playing 5 or 6 conga drums. You know, things just change. Different techniques have come along. There are heel-toe things you can do now and people have taken. So new things have come along but the beautiful thing about it is that you have all this new techniques in speed, etc, etc and still what’s incredible is that if doesn’t feel good no one wants to play with you. (Laughs) So it has to feel really really good.
ID – You see a lot more people focussing on speed these days whereas back in the days they were focussing a lot more on feel and the groove. Is it a need of the industry?
Luis Conte – If you get too concerned with speed, the musicality or feeling and there’s musicality in speed which is one thing. But what happens is the other side of that. Making us feel good like you said about suffers when you start thinking too much about all this fast stuff which maybe sometimes you don’t need that. But sometimes you do need it like in your solos where you can do what ever you want. But when you start playing the song, it may not work well. That’s just the way it is. There are great players now who do very difficult things and still play very musical. For example, the famous Vinnie Colaiuta can play the most difficult things in the world but I play with him all the time in LA in sessions. Sometimes we can play a ballad, a small little funky ball which requires just quarter notes, a cross-stick and downbeat and he plays that beautifully. You still have to be disciplined.
ID – How can one apply what he learns from percussion and apply it to drums? What’s your personal view on it?
Luis Conte – There’s too many examples but lets just take a cha-cha and did you know that in the traditional percussion world is not on the drum set. So you sit on the drum set and you transpose them, you put them into the drums. You make a downbeat on the 1 and a kick drum on the 3. (Sings the pattern) And now you have transposed the percussion part to the drums. That’s just one example.
ID – You play a lot of complicated material. How do you keep track of time when you switch between so many signatures and so many styles?
Luis Conte – It’s difficult. In a way it’s a little bit of feel. If you go like 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 (Laughs), you can’t play a solo like that. I grab on to something, maybe a melody or a pattern in my mind and I try to keep that inside when I’m playing.
ID – There are a lot of percussionists like you in Asian countries. Can you tell us a bit about how they should all go about it to have a strong foundation to being both a good percussionist and a musician?
Luis Conte – First of all, percussion is such a big area, it’s like the whole world you know. Right in India where you are you can learn the Kanjira or the Tabla, that’s whole different world. Then you have the Afro-Cuban world and Brazilian world, the Middle-Eastern, etc etc. So if you are like in my case like Latin music, so if you did that then you have to go right to the root, from the beginning. What makes everything work! In Afro-Cuban music, it’s the clave. So that’s the first thing you have to learn. You can’t start driving a car and not know where the brake is. So my suggestions for every musician is go start from the root and find a very good teacher. Get a good teacher who’ll help you and always ask questions to anybody. Don’t be afraid to talk to anyone. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Okay so they don’t talk to you, well too bad, you know. That’s it.
ID – Have you tried the Tabla?
Luis Conte – Man, it’s so difficult for me. You guys are masters of it. That is crazy. I have a set of Tabla but I don’t know how to do much with it man. And I totally respect and love your culture and how it’s so deep. I’ve had the chance to hang out with a great Kanjira player. His name is Selva Ganesh. I met him in Germany and he’s very well known and a good friend of mine. Also your system of counting is so unbelievable man. The thing with me is you need a lot of time to learn this. When I discovered the Tabla, it was in Germany with Selva and with Hakim who’s another percussionist. I go like “Wow! I really gotta study this.” But it takes a lifetime and I don’t have much time.
ID – Have you visited India?
Luis Conte – Never man. Selva invited me to Madras for a music festival so I hope someday I can come. And I love Indian food! I love the curry, the vindaloo man.
ID – It was a great chat and I’m sure it’ll be really helpful for the audience.
Luis Conte – All the best to you man. If I ever come to India I will find you.
Thank you. Bye.
Check out The Luis Conte School of Percussion from ArtistWorks : http://www.