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The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Salsa Percussionist Played With Passion


February 15, 2004
Copyright ©2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

The empty saltine cans made pretty good bongo drums for Victor Narvaez and the other boys in the band of rag-tag musicians jamming on the playground at the former St. Francis Catholic School.

Percussion is the driving force behind salsa, the music of the Caribbean, and Narvaez, also known as Vitin, brought his love for the music from his native Puerto Rico when his family came to Milwaukee in 1963.

Through more than three decades, he clung to his Puerto Rican culture and immersed himself in its music, becoming a pre-eminent salsa percussionist and leaving an indelible mark on local musicians.

On Sunday, many of those musicians will return to St. Francis to remember Narvaez, who died Feb. 4 in Killeen, Texas, at age 50, after a years-long battle with Pick's disease.

"The cans hurt our hands, but we loved it so much," said brother Ali Narvaez, remembering the makeshift instruments the boys stashed on the playground.

Born Victor Manuel Narvaez on Feb. 25, 1953, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, to parents Alejandro and Maria, he grew up in the Riverwest neighborhood near Holton St.

His dad was a factory worker and his mom a frugal homemaker who squirreled away enough money to buy suits for Narvaez and his brothers -- Ali, Orlando and Manuel -- when they joined La Orquesta Juvenil in the mid-1960s.

The boys' dinner table antics showed her they were serious.

"We'd start beating claves (beats) on the plates with our forks," Ali Narvaez said. "She'd say, 'Stop playing! Start eating!' "

Vitin Narvaez became a vocalist by mimicking his mom's singing, a self-taught musician by listening to his dad's Cuban records, and a dancer by watching his parents move to Ismael Rivera and Cortijo as a boy on the island.

But the stage in the church basement is where he got his start with groups such as The Little Beatles and Los Hermanitos Burgos. He evolved into the jovial entertainer whom his colleagues remember for his risque sense of humor.

"My dad was a very serious person. Vitin was the only one who could make him laugh," said Juvenil trumpeter Felix Colon, who attended Lincoln High School with Narvaez.

Percussionist Cecil Negron remembers Narvaez's high school high jinks.

"He'd stroll into class singing 'La Cucaracha' and make rhymes about the teacher in Spanish," Negron said.

La Orquesta Juvenil performed at the big salsa dances springing up at the Eagles Club and Federation Hall in the late 1960s. By the early '70s, they began playing in Chicago, opening for such acts as El Gran Combo and Larry Harlow. They recorded a single for Alba Records with two songs written by Vitin and Manuel Narvaez, "Loco Jazz" and "Llave con Guaguanco."

La Orquesta Juvenil evolved into La Controversia before its members separated in the late 1970s. Narvaez later hooked up with the band Sabor, which he ended up inheriting from founder Negron.

"We played Latin Bugalu," Negron said, describing the bebop/ salsa hybrid. "Once, at Rainbow Summer, he went out into the crowd and started a conga line with 400 people."

"He did this little move when he was dancing on stage," said Sergio Poventud, former Sabor percussionist. "He'd jump up and turn around and look back at the band with this little smirk."

Poventud, now 38, was an eighth-grader at St. Anthony's Catholic School when he met Narvaez, who was conducting a music clinic in MacArthur Square.

Poventud later joined Sabor and played with them through the early 1990s, when Pick's, a progressive form of dementia, began to take its toll on Narvaez.

"I had never touched a drum in my life," said Poventud, who leads the band Veneno. "He pushed me. I owe everything to Vitin."

Jertha "Wally" Ramos-Colon, who co-hosts "Orgullo Latino" on WMSE- FM (91.7) with husband Felix, called Narvaez a "natural talent."

"It's a great loss. That wonderful talent is not going be there anymore," she said. "It's a loss for the family of musicians he came from and the family of musicians he created."

The memorial service for Narvaez, featuring music by Grupo Cache and surviving members of Sabor, will be from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday at the chapel and hall at St. Francis Catholic Church, 1916 N. 4th St.

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