Eric Velez: Chameleon Conguero To The Stars

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.”

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One Good Word

Then came the big break. In 1989 Jusino was lured away from pianist Robert Navarro’s band Grupo Fascinacion to play with the emerging salsa singing sensation Jose “El Canario” Alberto. But on his way out the door, Jusino suggested that Navarro check out his little brother as a replacement conguero, since Velez already knew all the tunes. “Pete Nader was the musical director and he was skeptical because of my age,” Velez remembers. “But he finally said, ’Why not?’ Larry Harlow let Pete join his band when he was a teenager, so he put me into the group.

“That was at the tail end of the salsa boom of the ’80s. There were lots of gigs and lots of after-hours clubs. Grupo Fascinacion got my name out there and I started freelancing with other bands. I left to play with Pete ’El Conde’ Rodriguez, one of the top Fania singers, part of the Fania All Stars. I knew his music from my parents’ record collections. I was 16 when I joined his band. I’d already dropped out and got my GED.” Velez couldn’t drive, so his father took him to gigs and rehearsals. “My parents were supportive. They saw it was going well and didn’t ask me to get a job to fall back on. My dad insisted I get my diploma, but after that, I could do what I wanted to do.”

Playing with Pete Rodriguez gave Velez a high profile, which led to more freelance gigs. At 17 he got a call from pianist Eddie Palmieri. “Pete heard Eddie was looking for a conga player for a Chicago gig; he told him about me. My folks played [Palmieri’s 1962 debut album] La Perfecta in the house, so I was happy. At the same time I’m going, ’Oh oh.’ I was subbing for Richie Flores and Palmieri was strict. It was also my first trip out of the city. I did the gig and Palmieri told me I did a fantastic job. He gave me a hug and kiss and kept calling me. Eventually I became his conga player.

Content with his high-profile gig, Velez remained in Palmieri’s band until 1993, when he got a call from Marc Anthony. “His debut had just come out on RMM. His singing style was unique and he had the long-hair thing going. He wanted to put together a young band and I was in it. I only stayed for four months, but I made my first recording with him on the song ’Parece Mentira’ for the movie Carlito’s Way.”

Velez left to join Willie Colón and his Illegal Alien band. “I wanted to travel and have his name in my résumé.” Velez stayed with Colón for two years, while continuing to freelance. He played a few pick-up shows with Rubén Blades and Seis De Solar and recorded with jazz percussionist and composer Kip Hanrahan on the Thousand Nights And A Night CD. In 1995 Velez left Colón to work with Isidro Infante, who became the A&R director for RMM records.

“When I heard Isidro was looking for musicians I knew it was going to be an interesting gig. He’d done arrangements for Héctor Lavoe and Willie and he’d just got a gold record for his first album as a leader [Ganas Que Tengo De Ti]. He had Johnny Almendra on timbales and his bongo player, Ray Colon, knew me from when I was 17. Ray recommended me for the job. The three of us had great chemistry, and that’s when my studio career took off.

“I was used to playing live, so I had to practice playing with a click track, but I did my homework and when Isidro became A&R director for RMM, we did a lot of recording for him. Ray, me, and Colon became a dangerous trio, with Chino Nuñez switching off on timbales for some sessions. We became the RNN percussion clique and played a lot of sessions for them. I was also in the RMM Band for live gigs and backed up all their artists. I was part of the Tropical Tribute To The Beatles show and played with Puente, Celia Cruz, and Oscar D’León.”

Laying Tracks

In 1994, at the age of 23, Velez had an opportunity to test his growing studio expertise. Infante produced and arranged Jose “El Canario” Alberto’s groundbreaking album Tribute To Machito. “A lot of people tell me that record put my name on the map. It was a great album, and really made me think about the way music and rhythm interact. These days you have the full track to play along with. Back then all I had was the bass, piano, and click track. I’d hear the cues Isidro put on there, but I didn’t know what the arrangement was, or what the brass was playing, so I had to play what I felt and invent the part as I went along. It just poured out of me.

“After that session, I got two calls – one to rejoin Marc Anthony’s band and one from Dark Latin Groove, a new group that was blending salsa, reggae, reggaeton, and hip-hop. I hadn’t played with Marc for four years, but he said he wanted me back in the band. He was working with Paul Simon on The Capeman, so he wasn’t playing too much. That let me play with DLG too. It was a fun gig. The grooves were all funky and mixed up, so I got to stretch. We toured Europe, Japan, South and Central America.

“Then the pop scene had its big Latin bang,” Velez laughs. “Marc had a big hit with ’I Need To Know’ [from his first English-language album, Marc Anthony] and Ricky Martin had ’La Vida Loca.’ In Marc’s band, we experienced something new when we toured. We became pop stars as well as salsa stars. [Marc Anthony’s band] played the Grammys, we did an HBO special – the first HBO show with a salsa artist. It was taped at Madison Square Garden. It was the last time Tito Puente played Madison Square Garden before he died. He was standing right next to me when we did ’Nadie Como Ella.’ That Latin pop boom broke down some of the barriers that were closed to us. The band played on VH1, at the Latin Grammys, Good Morning America, Jay Leno, and the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The group is like a family, everybody gets along and whatever Marc wants us to play, we can play – salsa, rock, or jazz.”

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Branching Out

Despite his success with Marc Anthony, Velez still had time to freelance. He did two “hardcore, in-your-face” salsa albums with Jimmy Bosch, Avión De La Salsa in 2004 and Million in 2009, and was in the Bosch band for their Salsa Vivaldi tour of 2003. “We did shows with the Chicago Symphony, the Arizona Symphony, and the San Diego Symphony. They’d play the classical version, then we’d play our salsa version. Sometimes we’d collaborate and all play together.”

After years of playing in other people’s bands, Velez decided to step out on his own in 2005. With his brother, Jose “Juicy” Jusino, the man who first taught him how to play drums, he put together Juicy And Eric – Huracan, along with Isidro Infante and Nelson Hernandez producing. “Isidro and Nelson encouraged us to be creative and even let us sit in on the mixing. Juicy played timbal and I played bongos and conga, although we switched around on some tracks.

“The only problem we had was trying to find a singer. Every singer we auditioned was singing like Marc. My brother finally decided to make a demo with his vocals on it. The song was ’Por Si Vuelves’ by the Venezuelan band Guaco. It’s a hard tune to sing. I let him do it in the studio alone and when I heard it, I said, ’You don’t sound bad at all.’ He became the singer on our record. We put our names on it because we couldn’t think of a band name.” The album was released on Diamond, a small label started by Velez and Jusino, and it did well commercially. The brothers want to do a follow-up when their busy schedules permit (Jusino plays regularly with India and Conjunto Clásico), and Velez is planning a solo outing. “I still don’t know which road to take: jazz, salsa, or something nobody’s ever heard me do. I’m still brainstorming.”

Meanwhile, Velez keeps busy with his regular gigs with Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez. “I mainly play congas, bongos, and timbales, but I’m a diverse percussionist. When I’m playing with Jennifer, she gives me some room to experiment, as long as I make it sound like the CD, but you always have that little gap between notes that you can improvise around, especially on the ballads. There are no accents in the CD versions, so that’s when you can drop coloring in here and there. She gives me some space to do that. I like to use the minor percussion and cymbals, to make it sound pretty – little effects like chimes, rainstick, African gourds, small cymbals that you play with your mallets. It’s all about filling the spaces between the notes. It’s not an easy thing to do. The smallest things are often the ones that are the most challenging.”

Velez’ J-Lo Setup

Drums: Toca Eric Velez Signature Series Congas
1 11.75" Conga
2 11" Quinto
3 12.5" Tumba
4 14" Pro Line Timbale
5 15" Pro Line Timbale
6 12" Synergy Mechanically Tuned Djembe
7 7", 9" Eric Velez Signature Series Bongos
8 8" Mini Timbale Effects Snare

Cymbals: Paiste
A 14" Alpha Medium Crash
B 10" Alpha Thin Splash
C 17" Alpha Thin Crash
D 18" Alpha Rock China

Percussion: Toca
E Pro Line Bells
F Percussion Table includes: Professional Shekere, Double Bar Chimes, Half Moon Tambourine, Triangle, Graphix Tube Shakers, Woodblock, Seed Shell Shakers, Casaba/Afuche, Sleigh Bells, Rattler, Fusion Bells, and Caixixi
G Roland SPD-S Sample Pad