It’s often played out in the harsh light of the public arena. Child prodigies can flame out by the time they grow up, or their audience will lose interest the minute they spot the beginnings of a 5:00 shadow. In rare instances, though, former child stars survive the lost novelty of youth to become adult virtuosos. One shining example is Eric Velez, winner of the 2008 DRUM Reader’s Poll for Percussionist Of The Year, who began playing congas at the age of four and turned pro at fifteen.
Casual listeners may know him from his work with Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez, but Velez has added his mighty sound to the music of Eddie Palmieri, Isidro Infante y la Elite, Jose “El Canario” Alberto, and the RMM Band. He made his reputation with a technique that combines lightning-fast speed, sharp highs, and rumbling bass notes into a sound that commands your attention with its intensity. Even when he’s playing with a big Latin-jazz band, you can sense the power Velez pours into his drumming.
“People always comment on the volume of my bass notes,” he says from his home in Westbury, Long Island. “If they’ve never seen me live, they think I must be a huge guy, but I’m only 5’4" and my hands are small. The drummers I knew when I was growing up told me I had to be a rock-hard player, not one of those guys that’s strong for the first two songs then dies out. Congas are the foundation of [Latin] music, along with the bongos and timbales, so I always listen to the bass and piano and lock into the energy of that driving force. When I play, I want people to feel it in their bodies.”
Velez grew up in the Bronx with his mother, stepfather, sister, and half brother, Jose “Juicy” Jusino. “My parents had a big record collection,” Velez recalls. “Beatles, Stones, R&B from Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye, Earth, Wind & Fire, and lots of salsa and Latin jazz. I’m the youngest and when I was growing up, Juicy was already playing music. He learned percussion from his father, Juicy Sr., and played bongos, timbales, and congas.”
When Jusino was eight, he auditioned for Tito Puente, who was putting together young players for a rumba band. Juicy was hired along with his friends and future percussion stars Bobby Allende (Africando, 8 y Mas), Tito Allende, and Marc Quiñones (Rubén Blades, Spryo Gyra, Allman Brothers). The quartet became known as the Rumberito All Stars. They were pros before they started high school. “I think Mark [Quiñones] was ten and Tito was a bit older,” Velez says. “I was just a kid myself when my brother added a bass player and piano to the group and broke away from Puente.
“My dad and my brother’s dad had a good relationship and looked after the [Rumberitos]. When my brother went to gigs or rehearsals, they used to take me along, so I was exposed to seeing a real band, even though they were still kids and I was a baby. I was like a sponge – everything I saw and heard soaked into my brain. I banged on whatever they had laying around on the rehearsal room floor. When they played with Puente, my mom and dad would take me to the gigs. My brother took me to Bobby Allende’s house and everybody would be jamming. I’d listen to what they were doing, trying to imitate them.”
When Velez was four, Jusino started him on timbales. “I was small and I didn’t have the hands for congas yet, but something about them called to me. I moved on to bongos when I was older, then took up congas. I can still defend myself on timbales, but I don’t call myself a timbale player. When I’d see [the Rumberito All Stars] playing with Puente, I’d get as close to the stage as possible. They were all good, but Mark [Quiñones] had something else going on. I’d watch him, and what he was doing went into my ears and down to my fingers.”
Velez’ family lived in the projects, and he would hang around the street rumbas – spontaneous jam sessions that broke out on street corners and parks. “When I was 11 I ran into [conguero] Eddie Montalvo, who played with Rubén Blades,” Velez remembers. “When he was around he’d let me play in his street band. I learned a lot from him. He has a powerful masacote going on and some serious time-keeping happening with his left hand. I wanted to sound like him.”
As a boy, Velez hurried home after school to listen to the latest Latin LPs. Forsaking his homework, he’d spend his nights trying to reproduce the sounds he heard. “I had a few people I listened to a lot – Johnny Rodriquez, who played with Puente, Milton Cardona, Patato, Giovanni Hidalgo, Manny Oquendo, and Ray Barretto. At night my brother would take me to see local bands in the after-hours clubs. In the Spanish-music business, it’s called the ’cuchifrito circuit,’ but I didn’t care about the name – I just wanted to hear the music. Usually the bands would let me get up and play on two or three songs. I’d soak it all up.
“In junior high I took up trumpet for a few years – jazz and classical – but our teacher wrote the letters on top of the notes [because] the students were lazy about sight-reading. When I got to high school they didn’t have lettering on the charts, so I left the trumpet. The music theory I picked up was helpful, though.”