Milwaukee Father-Son Duo Carries On Rich Tradition Of Latin Percussion
There’s a rich tradition of Latin music in Wisconsin, including bands that have been performing for decades. In some cases, it’s a family affair, with musicians not only playing music, but passing it down through the generations.
Milwaukee father-son duo Cecil Negron and Cecilio Negron Jr. are percussion masters in the bands Cache and De La Buena — respectively, two of Milwaukee’s premier salsa or Latin jazz bands.
You may have heard them at Summerfest, in weddings or at street festivals or lakeside performances in front of crowds of hundreds.
In these bands, you’ll hear a driving force. And that’s the percussion.
Sixty-eight-year-old Negron is the conguero, or conga player for Cache. He’s soft-spoken and is usually wearing his signature “kangol,” a which is like a beret with a visor he wears in reverse.
Negron's music is earnest, driving and traditional. “My patterns are very simple, but I'm right on, right on as far as with the with the patterns of the different types of music,” he explains.
One of Negron’s musical inspirations is Puerto Rican supergroup El Gran Combo — who’s coming to Milwaukee for Summerfest in September. “If you listen to their music and the conga player is just very, very, very easy going, but right on to the song," he says.
Negron’s trajectory into Latin percussion started in Milwaukee when he was 14 years old, living on 18th and Vliet and shopping at a corner store. “And the owner of the store always loved The Beatles. So I was just kidding one time I said,' Juan, if you love The Beatles buy me one of those little bongos.' OK, so he did," he explains.
From then on Negron was hooked. He cut his teeth with local guitarists and started listening to the guaracha or salsa patterns at the time on vinyl all day long.
Negron eventually got his first conga and started playing salsa at dances. “I think there's how I stayed out of trouble on [Milwaukee's] east side,” he laughs. “I was busy playing la conga.”
Negron has stayed true to those rhythms but has also moved up a bit in the salsa world. “To me the drum is kind of my family,” he says. “If you come to my home, and there's three congas in the dining room, and those like the top drums, best drum that there is.”
“It’s like having a Steinway in your in your living room — Steinway piano, a grand piano,” chimes in Negron’s son Cecilio Negron Jr., who’s also known as Ceeloe.
The two trade some rhythms together on two congas in Negron Jr.’s Riverwest backyard. Negron Jr. says, growing up, playing the drum was in his DNA.
“So not only was the drum in the house, but there were musicians that will come and, you know, be at the house. There would be rehearsals at the house. There's constant exposure to music since I was, probably even before I was born, as I was being developed in my mom’s belly, probably," he says.
Negron Jr. continues, “Rhythms, Latin music was just around me, it was like, you know, part of the playlist of my life, you could call it I guess.”
But he was also a child of hip hop. Negron Jr. says, “I grew up when I was born, you know, like, in ‘75. So, like, '80s hip hop ... was what I gravitated to.”
Negron Jr. got in to producing, drum machines, sampling. The mixture of old and new laid the foundation for everything he does now.
That includes teaching, backing up emcees, drums and percussion of all types and playing with Milwaukee Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz band De La Buena. So, his music is an innovative spin on a variety of traditions.
“[It] has definitely strong rhythmic pulse, right, because I am a drummer … And so the Caribbean roots, right, the African roots is definitely something that's very prominent in my music, and all of the influence from my father, the roots of Latin music," Negron Jr says.
The elder Negron is very proud of his son’s work with kids. “As far as playing, I know that he can play, you know, out with De La Buena or with my band. I know he can do that. But to teach, that is so hard. And teach where the student listens and learn. I think that is one of the things that I'm most proud of him," he says.
Negron Jr. says his dad didn’t just instill in him patterns and rhythms, but also taught him how to relate to people. “So, one thing I definitely pull from my dad is cariño, you're very charismatic, very loving, and very engaging, very easily to engage and talk to," he says.
Negron Jr. now has four kids of his own. He’s not pressuring any of them to become a percussionist, or play Latin rhythms, but Negron Sr. is already beaming because of his one-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter.
“My granddaughter the other day, brought an awesome tear of joy to my eyes, because she was dancing,” he says. “She was dancing to the beat of the drum of her father.”
As they say… the beat goes on.