Louie Cruz Beltran Embodies the Last Soldier of Spirituality
By Kym Cunningham, Contributing Writer
Although many musicians speak of feeling the rhythm of their music, few embody it the way that percussionist, singer and all-around musician Louie Cruz Beltran does. He has a kind of natural corporeality to his auditory artistry.
Beltran’s explanation of this was surprisingly simple.
“When you’re around something all of the time, it’s natural,” said Beltran, who grew up around music. “It’s like breathing and eating…. It was in our blood since we were kids.”
Beltran, who will perform at the 2017 Long Beach Bayou and Blues Festival, describes his percussion as an extension of his heartbeat. His varied harmonies surround him like skin and hair.
“[My] textures of voice, I picked up from everyone — everyone from Elvis to Frank Sinatra to Lisa Fernandez to … the great Mexican operatic mariachi singers,” Beltran said.
He is drawn to music born out of pain and suffering, the kind of naked beauty that only exists when music is stripped of its privilege.
“Growing up, I didn’t gravitate too much towards the rock ’n’ roll,” Beltran said. “I was more into a cultural sound. I loved the Afro-Latin sound. That’s what I fell in love with.”
It is this passion for music that has led Beltran to success, producing several hit singles and performing for crowds diverse as those at Dodger Stadium, the Playboy Jazz Festival and the Ronald Reagan Library. A regular headliner at the annual LA Vida Music festival, which celebrates the influence of Latino/a culture in the arts. Beltran has played alongside some of the most renowned artists of our time, including Tito Puente, Francisco Aguabella, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Poncho Sanchez and Santana.
“The highlight of my career has been playing with some of these great musicians,” Beltran said. “I’ve done a lot of associative gigs with just about everybody in the business.”
As demonstrated by the breadth of genres on his musical résumé, Beltran’s variety embodies California’s amalgamation of tastes and cultures. It is as though he has incorporated the heterogeneity of his home state into both his musical ethos and his very being.
A Family of Entertainers
Beltran comes by his musical talent honestly, originating from a long line of natural musicians.
“Music has always been in our family,” Beltran said. “At one time, my mom’s family were migrant workers; they worked the fields throughout the Southwest of the United States — Texas, California, Arizona. They followed the crops…. My grandfather and his brothers, they had acoustic guitars and they sang in the fields and during the evenings.”
Beltran’s mother carried on the aural tradition with her sisters. Growing up, she was a part of a five-piece gospel group and this spiritual connection with music translated into a lifelong passion.
But Beltran’s father — a great singer in his own right — also came from a lineage of musical performers.
“On my father’s side … we had a famous flute player who actually played a mass for the Pope,” Beltran said.
Louie Beltran’s brother, Robert, is also a renowned actor, famous for his role as Commander Chakotay on Star Trek: Voyager.
Beltran’s mother encouraged him and his brother to pursue their passion for the arts, while maintaining the importance of receiving a good education.
Even with the support of his mother, Beltran originally did not think that he wanted to pursue music professionally. In the 1970s, Beltran received his bachelor of arts in social work, while minoring in music. After he graduated, he got a 9-to-5 state job as a juvenile counselor, moonlighting musical gigs for fun. But then, Beltran was asked to audition for an rhythm and blues/Latin jazz ensemble, Starrfire. When he received a call-back from the band, he knew he had a life-altering decision to make.
“To give up a secure job … it was a big step and I took it,” Beltran said. “I just plunged right in and I never looked back.”
After touring the world with Starrfire, Beltran returned to the States to formulate his own band, which primarily plays gigs on the West Coast.
Under his mother’s tutelage, Beltran grew up collaborating with other people in music. He remembered that his mother would refuse to allow him and his brothers to sing in unison.
“She made us sing in harmony,” Beltran said.
As such, it makes sense that Beltran looks to other members of his musical community for artistic inspiration.
“I’m inspired by listening to music,” Beltran said. “I gather with other rumberos — that’s what we call guys who sit down and play congas. You pick up different rhythms and you pick up different styles…. You have to be open-minded.”
Beltran said that listening to music is like window-shopping. These myriad influences and the versatility that lies beneath may be the key to Beltran’s success.
A Stage Dynamo
But more than his incredible versatility, Beltran is known throughout the music industry for his dynamic stage presence. Onstage, Beltran jumps from little humorous one-liners to brief insightful history to music lessons to thought-provoking commentary on social issues.
“I try to make my audience know that we’re not just instruments on the stage playing; we have blood and skin; we have brains,” Beltran said. “[It’s] important to communicate a sense of what we do and [to] talk about present issues a little bit …. But you can’t have a guy up there talking all day because you’re there for my music.”
Beltran tailors each of his shows to his crowd, resulting in completely unique performances every single time.
“You have to have a gauge and read your crowd,” Beltran said. “I check out what kind of music is being played, I check out how people are vibing … and I follow through the best that I can.”
Education’s Undercover Ambassador
Beltran’s passion onstage easily translates to his passion for championing social justice issues, while also addressing the dearth of fine arts in public education. In many ways, Beltran viewed passing on his musical knowledge as part of his duty as a musician, recognizing how many people have helped him succeed in his career.
But more than just social responsibility, Beltran believes he can use music to connect to Californian students. Growing up Latino in California, Beltran remembered experiencing first-hand the prejudice that can derail a student of color’s educational pursuit. Beltran recalled that on the first day of school, his teacher had pointedly said, “‘No one here will speak Spanish.’”
“I knew who she was talking to: she wasn’t talking to the white kids,” Beltran said. “I saw in school how things could cause a child to feel negative, subconsciously, about his environment.”
Now, Beltran uses the positivity of his music to teach inclusive workshops at a variety of schools: he has worked with students at universities, private schools, farm labor camps and the under-resourced areas of South Central and East Los Angeles.
Beltran doesn’t just teach music in these workshops. Rather, he uses music as a vehicle for other knowledge.
During these workshops, Beltran will impart mini-history lessons, explaining that the rhythms in rap and rock ’n’ roll are derived from the beats of the conga drum, or that the music of coastal Mexico stems from the confluence of Aztec, Mayan and African cultures.
“I am a diplomat of education, an ambassador,” Beltran said. “I go out and relate music because I think music helps people be creative, to use their imagination. It helps them in any field they go into…. It’s the last soldier of spirituality.”
LB Bayou Festival
Beltran intends to bring this spirituality to life at the 2017 Long Beach Bayou and Blues Festival, leaving each listener with a piece of his soul. Attendees can expect a crossover of music on the part of Beltran, who will implement elements of everything from salsa to R&B to classical and Latin jazz.
“You got zydeco going all night and all day,” Beltran said. “Then Louie Beltran’s going to give you cake, but he’s also going to put a little bit of frosting and chocolate pudding on the top. They’re going to get chocolate with me, that’s for sure. I’m as brown as they come.”
Louie Beltran will be performing on the New Orleans Stage at the Bayou Festival at 3:30 p.m. on June 25.