Afro-Cuban’s True Believer
Louie Cruz Beltran kicks off Playa Vista’s summer concert series to the beat of his own drum
By Evan Henerson
Over a career that has spanned four decades, Louie Cruz Beltran has followed the beat of the conga and the timbale across the world and back again.
As a student at the Conservatory of Percussion in Paris and later as a performer, the Afro-Cuban bandleader/percussionist has journeyed to Western Europe and Scandinavia, to the Dominican Republic and Morocco.
This weekend Beltran alights in Playa Vista’s Concert Park, where he’ll take the stage on Sunday to kick off the free Concerts in the Park summer series.
Although Beltran works frequently in Los Angeles, he isn’t familiar with the newly sprouted neighborhood. But give the man an outdoor venue and an audience full of listeners who are willing to get things shaking, and he promises to take it from there.
“For these kinds of festivals, I like to get my pathos, logos and ethos together and do some really great music,” Beltran says. “I’ll being doing a crossover of different types of music, all with a layer of Afro-Cuban rhythms.”
Beltran is speaking by phone from Bakersfield, where he’s visiting his mother. The San Joaquin Valley is where the seed for Beltran’s love of music was planted. As his mother Aurelia Olgin would prepare food, Louie Cruz and his seven siblings — including future “Star Trek: Voyager” star Robert Beltran (Chakotay) — would gather around and sing.
“It was kind of like a bird in the nest, and all the little birds would chirp along with mom,” recalls Beltran, who started playing bongos at age 5. “She would teach my brothers and sisters to sing in choir, and she taught me the concept of harmony. That has helped me my entire career.”
Beltran’s interest in music deepened as he grew up and started playing in the San Francisco Bay Area. The success of Carlos Santana was influential. During his time in Paris, Beltran learned African and Middle-Eastern percussion, and he studied with Puerto Rican and Cuban drummers.
Beltran knew early on that he would rather follow his music than punch a clock. During his early years, when professional work was difficult to come by, Beltran said he followed the example of Santana — with whom he would later share the stage — who proved that even with music drawing on Afro-Cuban beats, crossover success was attainable.
“I was doing Latin rhythms and changing the rhythms and the arrangements of songs by Earth Wind and Fire, James Brown, you name it and I would always put a little Latin beat to it. Eventually I was getting more gigs,” Beltran says.
“I was very good friends with Pete Escovedo and their whole family, and I noticed how they were crossing over,” he continues. “I told myself, ‘Louie, there’s time for the folk music of Afro-Latin tradition, and there’s a time for making money.’ I was going to stick to my music — look for creative ways to make a living and still play the music in the style that I love.”
As his career blossomed, Beltran has remained creative. He is a regular on the jazz festival circuit, playing engagements up and down the state, including the Playboy Jazz Festival and the Hollywood Bowl. He mixes the higher-profile concerts and festival performances with teaching and private events.
Beltran’s appearance calendar, which already has bookings into early 2017, includes gigs from Seal Beach to Pasadena. He’ll also be meeting with a group of librarians to explore the possibility of conducting a workshop. Beltran frequently appears as a motivational speaker at inner-city high schools to talk about the power of music as a bridge between segregated populations.
“Music has been, to me, the highlight of ambassadorship and diplomacy that has always been able to break barriers,” he says. “I use that tool to bring young audiences together to understand that there’s really much more that we have in common as a society than we have as differences.”
For his 2011 album “Paint the Rhythm,” his third, Beltran assembled a bunch of old friends including Escovedo, Poncho Sanchez, Giovani Hidalgo and Hubert Laws. He is working on a new CD, and
a possible re-release of his debut album “It’s My Time.”
Beltran advises up-and-coming musicians looking to emulate a Beltran-ish career to study the ever-changing music industry. If album sales is a more immediate goal than a heavily booked touring calendar, a musician will face a completely different set of variables.
“It’s not an easy trail, and you have to be the one to carry that flame,” Beltran says. “I’m very optimistic even when I see music being ripped off every day, from the point of having your material sold for 99 cents to seeing the diligence you need just to accumulate the money you need to survive. Things are done so differently now in the industry that it becomes a little discouraging at times.
“You have got to be passionate. You have to have a real love for what you do, and then you can get through the hard times.
“The sky will open. You’ll see it. It will come along.”
Louie Cruz Beltran plays a free outdoor show from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Sunday at Concert Park in Playa Vista, where Concert Park Drive terminates at West Runway Road. Visit playavista.com or louiecruzbeltran.com for more information.