Some tips to understanding how a popular dance music group can remain as the absolute first place for fifty years in a country like Cuba which is full of music, dances and other bands of every possible format.
On December 4th, 1969, when Juan Formell premiered Los Van Van Orchestra on 23rd St., between O and P St., in the middle of La Rampa, the thought of becoming, in less than a year, the band heading the national charts and the frenzy of all dancers in the country, was far from his imagination.
Much less he would have imagined that, half a century later, he would win, among many others, the Grammy Award for Musical Excellence, that he would be granted the Doctor Honoris Causa Degree in Arts from the University of Arts (ISA) and received the National Music Award, or the Special World Music Award, granted by the World Entertainment Organization along with Charles Aznavour and Quincy Jones, and the Award for the 2013 Artist by the World Music Exhibition (WOMEX).
During an interview we had regarding the Grammy award, he said:
For us, of course we are proud to share this Grammy to Musical Excellence with people of such caliber as Oscar de León and Miguel Ríos, but it conveys a greater significance. Although this award has been given to me, it covers the work of orchestras that go from Irakere, Adalberto Alvarez y su Son, Pupi y Los que Son Son to Havana D’Primera, and many others, because I feel they had to give in and acknowledge the worth of the Cuban music after 1959 and, therefore, admit that Son did not leave Cuba. They are convinced that Cuban musicians today cannot have the same sound as Aragón or the great Benny Moré. These times require an evolution that matches the moments we are living. It’s just that… we won the fight.Juan Formell.
Juan Formell could not imagine either that his orchestra (with such a peculiar name) would have its own award and several Grammy nominations, and that it would get any number of awards, distinctions, acknowledgements and prizes granted by the Cuban cultural and media organizations, including almost a dozen Cubadisco Awards and many dozens of Popularity Awards.
How did we get to Van Van?
As many young people of all generations, and particularly his own, the one Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés are also part of, Juanito was always with his guitar playing his songs, sometimes intimate, many times with a special approach to the Caribbean rhythm, with some pop accents (mostly a variant some called shake), and very eager to “conquer the world”.
That’s how he played with groups led by much respected musicians like Pedro Jústiz (Peruchín), Guillermo Rubalcaba and in Carlos Faxas’ Orchestra.
And so, the first pieces were written. Some of them (“Y ya lo sé”, “Lo Material”, “De mis recuerdos”) were crucial hits during the last moments of the great vocalist Elena Burke.
He was, for a brief time, a teacher at the peculiar Escuela de Música Moderna (Modern Music School) created by a restless youth leader, where many great talents graduated, especially Beatriz Márquez, better known as the “musicalísima”.
Without question, the turning point in Juan Formell‘s life is his inclusion in Revé Orchestra in 1967.
Soon after, the first signs of the great transformation of the Cuban dance music, that would happen in less than two years, started to appear with songs like “Yuya Martínez”, “¡Qué bolá, qué bolón!” and “La flaca”, which paved the way with the amazing strength of great discoveries. That new sound was baptized as changüí-shake.
In 1969 Formell separated from that band and created Los Van Van. With José Luis Quintana (Changuito) playing a percussion set, as heterodox as functional, changüí-shake became what was later known as songo; and songo became a national passion.
The remarkable essayist Leonardo Acosta, one of the most incisive music critics of the country, describes those initial moments:
The change of timbre with electronic instruments required a different orchestral arrangement, especially on the strings, and the basic rhythmic cells were obviously transformed, which influenced the double bass and the percussion session as well, centered around the drum player José Luis Quintana (Changuito), an expert on Afro-Cuban rhythms. The voice style also changed, and the undisputable success of Van Van brought about an inevitable trail of followers and imitators. In my opinion, a most appreciated contribution by Formell has been that of showing the constant vitality of the Cuban Son…Leonardo Acosta.
In the first ten years the orchestra was constantly reinventing itself. During their second decade, in my opinion, throughout ten albums, what stands out is, precisely, an innovative search, with a more stable experimental inspiration, as it should be for an orchestra that is confident about its possibilities.
As such, compositions by Formell include a greater diversity of local genres. So, along with songo, we also find boleros, cha-cha-chá, rumba, danzón, montuno and guagancó.
Nevertheless, the main innovation is the inclusion of trombones, which had sort of taken the lead in salsa groups. We must consider that Van Van started with a modified format adopted from the typical charanga (same as Aragón and Revé Orchestra’s style). Formell claims that, in his case, it was not the direct influence of salsa music, but the chance to level the core register of the orchestra so as to obtain a much more compact sound in comparison to previous works. That is called “macho sound” in the Cuban music jargon.
What is it about?
One just doesn’t fall from the sky. Behind it all, there is a history that is not only that of music, but also that of our people, from its origins to the present day. What we call identity is a sentimental, psychological, conceptual notion, which also impacts music.Juan Formell.
We can include there countless considerations that show us a very special musician, who is perfectly clear about some fundamental concepts aiming at all directions.
One of these concepts is that of being a “reporter” of his own reality. It’s obvious that dancing music “also has lyrics”. And lyrics say (or should say) something that goes beyond the hedonistic pleasure and they are an important support for the dancer. Right there, where many lose their course, Van Van has had a sense of the popular and the enjoyable, and also of the appreciation people have of themselves.
To me the first thing is the story I am going to tell. Yes, I can’t do anything until I have that story, which I get from somewhere. I have never been detached from the life of the people, no particular reason but I just like to live with the people, get in a line, listen to their conversations. The line for bread is ideal for it: you can hear almost anything there… the thing is that the Cuban has the virtue of summarizing a very important thing in one single phrase. And from that phrase, I build up my story.Juan Formell.
I said before Los Van Van and not Juan Formell, because when César (Pupy) Pedroso showed up with his song “Hoy se cumplen seis semanas”, it was hard not to think of one voice, one composer. And so it has happened, more recently, that all offsprings have started composing, from Samuel and Juan Carlos (his actual sons) to Robertón, Lele, Boris Luna, Jorge Leliebre, Mayito Rivera, Roberto Carlos Rodríguez (Cucurucho)… not a slip, not a vulgar expression. Grace, humor, double meaning perhaps, but always with elegance, moderation, proud to be Cuban, proud to be Van Van.
The list of countries, cities, festivals and concerts where Van Van has presented the Cuban music at its highest level is endless. Some are unforgettable like the Jazz Festival of Angulema, where they performed with Miriam Makeba, and the concert at the Olympia Theater in Paris, with Rubén Blades and Los Seis del Solar.
Music did the talking in all of them, with a unique, simple, direct and universal language, as great things usually happen.
Personally, I found impressive the closing ceremony for the Musicology Award Casa de las Américas 2014. It happened at an event dedicated to present the best of the Latin American intellect.
More than a hundred personalities from the musicology universe had participated in the event. The academic program included about 150 papers and lectures that demanded simultaneous sessions in four different halls. Twenty three Latin American and European countries were represented, as well as guest speakers from Japan, Australia and the United States.
So, Van Van played and not a single person stood still, everybody moved the way they felt more comfortable. Academia proved, in practice, what a recent chorus repeated:
“¡Van Van es cosa gorda!” (Van Van is a huge deal!!).
Which part of the national pride?
Cubans feel we have the right to say what is ok or not regarding Van Van, how’s their health, where they are going, like a close relative or an idolized member of the family. We demand from them as we do it from an official. We hurt if something goes wrong. As I wrote on a previous paper, Van Van is a reason for Cubans to be proud of.
That’s how one can understand the great satisfaction we feel to learn that two of their latest albums have been nominated to the Grammy Awards. They were both released after the passing of Juan Formell. I think that says a lot.
For the first, La fantasía, the maestro had sketched the general design and it was clear his participation would be smaller than in previous albums. Most of the work would be in the hands of the offsprings we mentioned above. That’s what happened. He did not see the results, not even the recording process. In the end, it was published explicitly as a homage to his life and work.
The song that would name the album was supposed to be performed by Luna Manzanares. Instead, fate intervened and the confident voice of the maestro, who had recorded the song for a demo, was used. His son Samuel did a beautiful work with his father’s voice, adding those of Coro Diminuto’s children, which are always a chant to the future.
We must have our feet on the ground and, every once in a while, have a dream. Life is reality, and fantasy as well. Dreaming costs nothing, but life without a dream is worthless.Samuel Formell.
His most recent production, Legado, is a whole symbol.
That’s exactly where the immense legacy of this exceptional representative of the Cuban music lies. It was a detailed work, a responsibility they all took supporting ‘Samuelito’. Nothing could fail. They could not fail the ‘old man’. The outcome was like a new blast. There they were again, nominated to the Grammy Awards. This time without the good eye and the timely advice of the designer, constructor, machinist of the Cuban music train.
When the irreplaceable Elio Revé passed away, his son Elito took over the direction of his orchestra, the same happened in Van Van. In both cases, among Cubans and critics in particular, fears aroused as to the fate of these orchestras that had contributed so much to our music. As it usually happens, once the great protagonist of its own name, the shine starts to fade and the voices get silent. But Elito has taken Charangón to incredible levels, and you already know the current story of Van Van.
After just a meeting, both sons-directors agreed to produce a concert they would call: “Two Legends: Elito Revé and Van Van in Concert”.
It was an unprecedented event that took place in the fields of the Sports City in Havana, at the same place where the famous Rolling Stones had their concert in Cuba. The show was recorded on a DVD that carries the name of the concert.
The outcome: Grand Prize Cubadisco 2019.
Juan Formell’s prophecy was fulfilled when his composition “Somos Los Van Van” (We are Van Van) in 1982, stated in one of his verses interpreted by Pedrito Calvo:
There will always be Van Van even when there is only one who stands for the idea of this new Son.