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“Mr. Conga” Noël Quintana smiles while playing the conga. Photo Courtesy of Noel Quintana's Latin Crew Facebook. 
“Mr. Conga” Noël Quintana smiles while playing the conga. Photo Courtesy of Noel Quintana's Latin Crew Facebook. 

The ‘Nuyorican’ band leader behind one of the region’s most prominent salsa and Latin jazz bands

“Mr. Conga” Noël Quintana, alongside a band, will be providing musical performances at the 2021 AL DÍA Archetypes event on Sept. 24.

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When Noël Quintana was growing up in Brooklyn, New York, music was a prominent part of his life.

“Music was always in the air,” Quintana said during an interview with AL DÍA.

His father owned a bodega in Brooklyn, while his uncle owned a record studio next door, and as Quintana got older, he developed an interest in Afro-Caribbean and Latin music and started to build his own record collection. 

After attending a concert at Times Square and seeing Grammy Award-winning pianist, band leader, musician and composer Eddie Palmieri and the late percussionist and band leader Ray Barretto — who similarly to him are of Puerto Rican descent from the New York City area, or Nuyoricans — Quintana became inspired to take conga lessons. 

“And I’ve been doing this ever since,” he said. 

He continued his formal music education and studied Afro-Cuban and Afro-Puerto Rican styles, as well as contemporary urban salsa at the Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts in the Museo del Barrio in Manhattan. 

Quintana underscored how starting a new instrument at the age of 19 may have been a little late, but he quickly caught on.

Within two years, he started working and performing professionally with popular local salsa bands in the area.

In 1991, Quintana moved from Brooklyn to Cleveland, Ohio.

“There, I became the conga player for many of the salsa artists that were coming in from Puerto Rico and New York City,” said Quintana. “And then that’s how I built up my resume.” 

As his popularity grew and he began performing with numerous prominent groups and bands across NYC, Ohio and nationwide, his oldest son “baptized him,” with the nickname “Mr. Conga,” a name that has stuck with him since. 

When asked about his musical style, Quintana said, “I primarily have been rooted in tradition.”

“My influences are American jazz and the old big bands,” he said, noting Tito Puente, Machito and Tito Rodríguez as some of the artists he gravitated toward given his appreciation for dance music. 

“As long as it has a good beat [and] makes people dance, I love it,” Quintana added. 

On Oct. 16, 1999, Quintana made his debut as the band leader of “Noel Quintana & The Latin Crew,” an 11-piece band that has since become one of the most prominent salsa and Latin jazz bands in the region. 

Photo from Noel Quintana's Latin Crew Facebook.

While the pandemic has forced the band to be cut down to just five members and brought out some challenges, “I’m pretty fortunate and blessed to have people who really do pick up the slack,” said Quintana. “We keep the motor running.” 

In addition to his role as a musician, conga player and band leader, Quintana is also an educator. 

He has taught for Northeast Ohio Jazz Society’s Banda Hispana Cultural and the Julia de Burgos Community Center for 16 years. In addition to that, he also teaches private lessons in Latin percussion and offers assembly performance programs for schools and cultural centers. 

“I like teaching people and kids who maybe don’t have this background, don’t hear this kind of music in their house to show them where these instruments come from and where they’re used in different music,” said Quintana. 

“I always like exposing other people to our culture and to our music… and what I really get out of it is the joy on the kids' faces, especially when I put them to interact and participate with me,” he added. 

Now based in Pittsburgh, on Friday, Sept. 24, Quintana will be coming to Philadelphia and providing musical performances during the AL DÍA’s premier celebration of America’s Hispanic Heritage for 2021.

“I’ll be accompanied by a local band,” he said. “I’ll be bringing my vinyls with me and some CDs… And we’re going to be performing cover tunes.”

“It’s going to be fun… it’s going to be so full of activity. It’s going to be great,” Quintana added. 

The 2021 AL DÍA Archetypes: Ambassador Manuel Torres Award Gala & Awards Ceremony will take place at The Union League of Philadelphia. 

For ticket information on the upcoming event, click here

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