Cuba's digital destination

Juan Formell y Los Van Van – Up close & personal

Juan Formell y Los Van Van – Up close & personal

About Los Van Van
In 1967, Formell became musical director of Elio Reve’s charanga orchestra. The sound of Orquesta Revé at that time was a unique blend of Cuban son and late 60s rock. Formell reformed the group into Changui ’68, and then founded his own group, Los Van Van, on December 4, 1969. Using a charanga line-up (flute, string instruments, and rhythm section) as its base, Los Van Van added trombones, and was the first Cuban group to use synthesizers and drum machines. Initially, their sound was a fusion of son montuno, rumba, and North American rock and pop. Later Van Van incorporated funk, disco, and hip hop. Los Van Van has consistently managed to adapt its style to the times, and remains, after 43 years, Cuba’s most popular dance band.

Along with pianist Cesar “Pupy” Pedroso, Juan Formell has written some of the most intriguing verses in popular dance music, including stories that run over several albums and, contrary to trends in timba, all types of social commentary. The band has a Grammy Award to their credit, the 2000 Latin Grammy awarded to the album Van Van is Here (‘Llegó Van Van’). In January 2010 “A Cali,” a song from Van Van’s latest album was selected as one of the winning songs of the 2009 Cali Fair held in Cali (Colombia), a city known as Colombia’s ‘salsa capital’. Los Van Van has been a school for outstanding singers and musicians. Past members with successful careers as solo artists include Pedro Calvo, Angel Bonne, Changuito, José Luis ‘El Tosco’ Cortés (founder of the first timba band NG La Banda), Cesar “Pupy” Pedroso and others. The band has recorded 33 albums and has toured extensively all over the world.
A new life for Juan Formell
by Margaret Atkins My kids love me. They influence my life in different ways. I’m married to a younger woman and this helps, too. She’s turned out fine and I feel good.
Juan Formell

“I don’t dance.” This simple statement by a Cuban always takes people by surprise. But coming from the director of the most famous dance band in Cuba that has become part of the musical history of the island, it is almost unbelievable. Juan Formell—bassist, composer, arranger, trovador, innovator, and above all, the man who has led Los Van Van for 42 solid years—welcomes us at his home, a beautiful house whose backyard is the joy of his grandchildren. He tells us that in terms of dancing, he is like a baseball fan, who dreams of being a great baseball player and with the eyes of his mind imagines he is hitting a homerun. “But when they hand you a bat, you don’t even know how to handle it right. You can imagine it. You can dream it. But when the time comes, you can’t do it. I love people who dance well and dance beautifully, but I don’t have that corporal gracefulness.”

Formell may not have the talent for dancing, but this has been more than compensated by his amazing musical talent that he inherited from his father, Francisco Formell, who, in the words of his son Juan, “was an excellent musician.” He adds that his dad studied with one of Cuba’s greats, Amadeo Roldán. He played the piano and the flute; was a band director for variety shows; and taught his son harmony, counterpoint and music theory. “My father taught me all the basics that allowed me to tackle different things,” says Formell, whose conversation is spiced up with Cuban phrases, which, alas, are lost in translation.

Although the bass that Juan Formell studied with Orestes Urfé became his first means of livelihood when he was only 15 playing with nightclub, radio and television orchestras, his first instrument was the guitar, which allowed him to make incursions in music on his own. “I knew the entire “filin” repertoire, but I also knew Elvis Presley’s songs because I played rock and roll, too.”

When he began to study music in earnest, the guitar served him well (and still does) to start singing, composing and doing orchestral arrangements. But it was not only popular dance music for Formell. “Trova,” he says, “was very important for me. We started out almost at the same time, Pablo, Silvio and me. I have always respected them a lot and they have respected me.”

Meeting singer Elena Burque, one of Cuba’s most outstanding and popular voices, meant a huge step forward in his musical career. Blas Egües (brother of the renowned flutist Richard Egües of the Aragón orchestra) was the drummer of the band of the Habana Libre Hotel, in which Formell was bassist. One evening, Blas introduced Elena to him and Formell recalls that he said something like, “Hey, this guy’s got some good songs.” Elena listened to them and liked them instantly, and that is how a very fruitful relationship began, one that would give Formell immediate recognition, which he would otherwise had not attained so quickly. Elena’s singing career too received a boost thanks to those songs, which would become part of Cuba’s musical history. As luck would have it, the musician who was to make the arrangements was ill and Formell offered to do it. “Real cheeky of me,” he confesses, “because I had written music before but not at the level of the Modern Music Band…” Their first “trial” song together was “De mis Recuerdos,” which became an instant nationwide hit.

Elena and Formell went on to record four other songs for the “Mis 22 Años” album, which already had several songs by Silvio and Pablo. This record allowed Formell to make a grand entrance in the music world. He was not only an excellent bassist but also began to be acknowledged as a talented composer and arranger. About his personal relationship with Elena Burke, he says, “It’s hard to explain. She was my sister, my buddy; we would have forty drinks together. We made several international tours and became real good friends.”

In 1968, Formell’s career would take an important turn when he joined the Revé orchestra as bassist, composer and musical director. “The Revé band that I joined at the time,” he confides, “went from run-of-the-mill to bad. And I said to myself, ‘No way! I can’t deal with this. Either I adapt the band to my music or I leave and do something else.” During his Revé years, Formell’s work as arranger and composer—and innovator—soon began to reap rewards as many of his songs caught on in the public. However, as Formell tells us, “My stint with Revé lasted two years because he had this character and stuff and I decided to leave and make my own orchestra.”

A few days before the end of 1969, Formell created Los Van Van, which according to its director has always been experimental. “With Van Van I’ve done exactly as I’ve pleased. I’ve worked with two flutes, synthesizers. I included two trombones, added a female singer to the band’s lineup… What I mean is that I do with the band whatever and as much as I want. And so far it has turned out right.” Beware, however: this do-as-I-please attitude cannot be taken as a whim or arbitrariness. Each and every one of the changes or additions made by Formell has a solid underlying basis. They are all the result of simple yet no less intelligent reflections.

One example of this is Jenni, the female singer who he brought to the band much to the surprise of his many fans and faithful followers. This decision, though, came naturally to Formell: “The high pitches of the choruses have to be sung by the singer who has the highest-pitched voice, but he suffers a lot from these high registers. So I thought, ‘Damn, a woman’s voice is just right for that.’ Because a female singer doesn’t get tired. It’s a high tessitura for a man but a woman is comfortable singing in that range. And when she has to do a solo, she can do it perfectly because her voice hasn’t suffered. There’s a reason for everything.”

Formell has made several contributions to Cuban charanga music. Long before the term fusion would become practically a household word, he combined Cuban music with the rock and roll and soul music of his time and substituted the electric bass and synthesizer for the double bass and piano. He introduced the electric organ and drums, and gave the violins a different rhythmic and acoustic amplification treatment. He also used harmonies for vocals instead of singing in unison. During the time he played with the Revé band, he created a genre called Changüí 68, which broke many established rules. With his own band, Los Van Van, he created Songo. Changüí-shake, Songo-changüí and others.

Despite the years and the inevitable change of members of the band plus the experimentation and variety of rhythms, Los Van Van has retained a distinctive sound from the time of its creation. “Everyone who comes to the band comes with their minds on Los Van Van…without going back in time because LVV’s sound of the 70s was recorded and there it stays. We have made renovations over and over so that what we’ve created can remain for years to come.” The ability of the band of adapting their style to the times is a major reason why they continue to be at the top of Cuban music after over four decades of existence.

LVV’s popularity and success is huge, both in Cuba and internationally. The band releases a new album almost every year. Formell has pictures of Cuban streets on whose walls people have written things like “Van Van is Cuba” and “Van Van is homeland.” He has received countless awards, including the (in Formell’s words) “American” Grammy. He also received the National Culture Order and an honorary degree from the University of Havana, just to mention two.

Formell firmly believes that the key to any band’s success lies in its composers. Supporting the musicians and the singers is the creator of songs. “Success lies in what you write. When a band has two or three good composers, it can last a million years.”

At 70, Formell continues to be very active, although not always in public. His son Samuell is in charge of the band’s daily work, although his dad always accompanies him when major decisions must be made. He is always present in recording sessions and continues to compose. He also makes music for films.

“My kids love me. They influence my life in different ways. I’m married to a younger woman and this helps, too. She’s turned out fine and I feel good.” Being a diabetic for 25 years has taken its toll. However, after years of a disorganized lifestyle, Formell has managed to control his disease. “The only thing I did was to straighten myself out because I realized that I could still be useful. I stopped doing whatever was harmful to me. I don’t drink and don’t smoke. I love my wife. I enjoy life a lot. I read more now than I used to and watch more movies. I’m living a new life, a real new life for me.” Los Van Van: music chroniclers of a country
by Ricardo Alberto Perez On December 4, 1969, the feast day of Saint Barbara, or Chango in the Santeria religion, a band that was to become a legend in Cuba’s music scene made its triumphal entrance—Los Van Van. Los Van Van was created by bassist/composer Juan Formell, who at the time had already accumulated considerable experience playing with important bands of Cuban popular music. Formell’s incursion in groups with different interests and formats, such as the Habana Libre Hotel Orchestra, the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television Orchestra, and several jazz ensembles gave him valuable insight into the possibility of fusion as an important option for the future of popular danceable music. Those years had a special meaning for him thanks to his professional relationship with the extraordinary singer Elena Burke, who would be the first to interpret several of his songs that would become national hits, thus making Formell known as composer and arranger. In the early 60s, he joined the Revé band, which marked a turning point in his search for his own renovating style and a kind of trial period for the future Los Van Van.

The emergence of Los Van Van meant a profound revival of Cuban popular music, which is an ongoing process to this day. Many of us Cubans, who were born around that time, grew listening to the unique rhythms and incredible lyrics of this band that quickly made its way up to the top in the preference of the public.

Formell brought to the band a different kind of vocal work—close harmony, a tradition exploited in popular music by quartets. He also added other instruments, such as drums and electric guitar, which were not used in popular music orchestras before. This gave way to a sound that would come to be known as Songo. This was a new way of playing the traditional Son with elements of rock and soul, and whose rhythmic design consists in combining percussion with piano and bass figures. The authorship of Songo is attributed to percussionist José Luis Quintana, aka Changuito; Formell’s faithful companion in this adventure. Today, Songo is most likely the only genre in the world played by only one orchestra, Los Van Van.

Van Van’s first generation musicians was formed by José Luis Quintana (Changuito), Raúl Cárdenas (Yulo), César Pedroso (Pupi), Fernando Leyva, Jesús Linares, Orlando Canto, José Luis Cortés (El Tosco), Julio Noroña, Gerardo Miró, William Sánchez, José Luis Martínez and Miguel Ángel Rasalps (Lele), along with director Juan Formell. All of these musicians later found solo fame as singers or band directors themselves.

LVV’s first four albums saw the light under the title Juan Formell and Los Van Van (I-IV). Their fifth album was named after their legendary hit El buey cansao (1982), which was both a song and a dance that became popular both in Cuba and elsewhere in the Latin American continent. This piece summarized Formell’s exceptional gift to capture the humorous and transfer it the dance floor.

Hit after hit, the 1980s brought a remarkable transformation to the band—trombones played a leading role while keyboard synthesizers and electric violins were introduced, renewing the band’s sound and happily surprising their numerous fans once more. One of the band’s hallmarks is the use of irony, local customs and everyday events in their lyrics, becoming a sort of chroniclers of Cuban reality.

It should be noted that many important singers have been members of the band, including Angel Bonne, Roberto “Guayacán” Hernández, Abdel “Lele” Rasalps, Israel Sardiñas, Pedrito Calvo, Mayito Rivera and Yeni Valdés. Interestingly, despite their individual talents and that some, like Angel Bonne and Pedrito Calvo, went on to pursue solo careers, each of these singers have been captivated by Formell’s genius as composer and arranger. Most of them remain with the band.

Juan Formell’s open-minded and fearlessly experimental attitude has made his road to success easier. His clear creative purpose has instilled confidence and security to those who have accompanied him in his musical journey throughout the years.

Talking to Formell, you discover how his own life has occupied a central role in his music. The composer tells us of his mother’s passion for cooking. To some extent, Formell inherited this culinary vocation, which is not confined to his kitchen, but is present in some of his songs, as two of his hits reveal: “Échale calabaza al pollo”—Add Squash to the Chicken—and “El negro está cocinando”—The Black Guy’s Cooking.

During the 1980s, LVV’s fame spread beyond the borders of Cuba performing in Great Britain, Austria, Switzerland and Germany. In later years, their tours would take them countless times to Europe, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and the US. In the latter, they have performed around 14 times.

In the early 1990s, the band celebrated their 20th anniversary with a tour throughout the island, drawing large crowds in every town where they performed. Needless to say, they draw large crowds in every performance. In 2000, Formell received a Grammy Award (Best Salsa Performance) for his work on the album Llegó Van Van – Van Van Is Here, recorded at Abdala Studios. That same year he received the Special World Music Award from the World Entertainment Organization along with international figures singer Charles Aznavour and American musician Quincy Jones.

Los Van Van has been a favorite band among several generations of music lovers in Cuba. Formell’s mixture of tradition with contemporaneity has made this orchestra reach top positions not only in the charts but also in the hearts of the people.

Talent, witty lyrics, novel sounds and a highly aesthetical musical product are some of the merits that Los Van Van have passed on to our music. Juan Formell is probably the most important figure in Cuban popular danceable music and has been Cuba’s most popular group for 43 years…and counting.   Discography Los Van Van Vol I (1969)   Esto Está Bueno (1991) Los Van Van Vol II (1974)   De Cuba Los Van Van (1991) Los Van Van Vol III (1974)   Bailando Mojao – Dancing Wet (1993) Los Van Van Vol IV (1976)   Azúcar (Xenophile Records) (1993) Los Van Van Vol V (1976)   25 Años… y seguimos ahí! Vol I (1994) Los Van Van Vol VI (1980)   Lo Ultimo En Vivo (Qbadisc Records) (1994) Báilalo ¡Eh! ¡Ah! (1982)   ¡Ay Dios, Ampárame! (1996) Qué Pista (1983)   Live In America (1997) Anda, Ven y Muévete (1984)   Te Pone La Cabeza Mala (1997) La Habana Sí (1985)   Llegó Van Van (1999) Eso Que Anda (1986)   En El Malecón De La Habana (2003) La Titimania (1987)   Chapeando (2005) Songo (1988)   Sandunguera (Timba Records [Germany]) (2005) El Negro No Tiene Na’ (1988)   Live From Camagüey (2009) Songo (Mango) (1989)   Arrasando (2009) Rico Son (1989)   La Maquinaria (2011) Aqui… El Que Baila Gana (1990)      
March 2013

This slideshow requires JavaScript.