Los Van Van leader Juan Formell passed away on May 1st 2014, but yesterday would've been his 79th birthday.
juan formell los van van
Photo: Chris Pizzello / AP

Since July 11th, Cuba has been experiencing one of the most important social movements in its history. The demonstrations inside and outside the island not only seek changes at the political level, but also in the cultural world and Cuban music and Cuban musicians are not left out of the conflict.

It is not the first time that the challenges faced by the Cuban Revolution have a direct impact on its music. In 1969, Fidel Castro proposed a challenge to the entire Cuban population, he called it the “Year of the decisive effort”. The following year, 1970, will go down in Cuban history as the year of the ten million sugar cane harvest (Cuban zafra). In that year, with the declared objective of improving the island’s financial situation, the government dedicated all its resources and the efforts of the country to achieve the production of 10 million tons of sugar.

But this great effort was the inspiration for the name… with van, van a reference to the amount of sugarcane that had already been collected, i.e. ‘van 2 millones’… ‘ahora van 4 millones.'”

To achieve this objective, the extensive demolition of large amounts of land was carried out for the cultivation of sugarcane, and a large number of Cuban people were mobilized to harvest, under the active participation of the armed forces.

Despite all the efforts, and practically paralysing the rest of the country’s industries, the planned goal was not achieved, producing just over 8 million tons. But this great effort was the inspiration for the name of one of the most famous popular music groups in the history of Cuba: Los Van Van  – with van, van a reference to the amount of sugarcane that had already been collected, i.e. “van 2 millones”… “ahora van 4 millones.”

“The backbone of an orchestra is the bass along with the percussion”

This phrase enunciated by Juan Formell in the beginning days of Los Van Van is perhaps one of the most remembered. Juan Climaco Formell Cortina was not only a bass player, but also a director, arranger, composer, singer, producer and much more. Born on August 2nd, 1942 in Havana, he self-taught the flute and piano. Later he moved towards composition and studied bass guitar with excellent musicians such as Armando Romeu, Antonio Taño and Orestes Urfé. Formell always showed great interest, not only for Cuban music, but also for the international music of his time (especially The Beatles).

From that moment on, he began a long professional career as an orchestrator and composer in the Guillermo Rubalcaba and Carlos Faxas orchestras. Successful songs such as “Y ya lo sé”, “De mis recuerdos”, “Lo material” y “Yo soy tu luz“ composed by him and  Elena Burke (“the great lady of feeling”) made them very famous. Years later, they would meet again when Formell, along with his guitar, sang alone as in the days when he used to be an amateur troubadour.

For Helio Orovio, a Cuban musicologist: “Formell was able to mix the rhythm of the changüi, with rock, the Beatles and the new Trova… Only something very good could come out of that mix”.

Songo

On December 4th, 1969, Los Van Van appeared for the first time: with José Luis Quintana “Changuito” on the pailas (timbales) and Pupy Pedroso on the keyboard. Both pushed Formell to create that concept of “songo”. The rhythmic design of the songo is different from the rest of the Cuban groups of the late 1970s. In this regard, Formell said:

At the beginning of the 70s there was a very elitist sector within the Cuban popular music, where Formell was not very welcome.

“We did not sell it as something new, nor too original, because I think that all the rhythms are the result of several mixtures. We just named it songo. Years later we even forgot that it was called like that… However, especially abroad, the songo has been recognized as a genre. When some versions of our songs have been made, they have been classified as songo. There are magazines that have published how the songo is played and what its characteristics are (…), we recorded an album with the English music company “Island Record” and we also named it songo. And right after, it began to spread throughout the world (…) We know that from the artistic point of view we are different from the rest of the orchestras known as salseras. We have a very defined sound, which has matured and evolved over time, but which is unmistakable”.

Revé Orchestra

In 1967, when Formell joined the Revé Orchestra, he unleashed all his talent transforming the style of Cuban charangueras orchestras: he replaced the electric bass and the keyboard with the double bass and the acoustic piano and also the flute and the drums with the five-key flute and pailas (timbales). He also changed the rhythm and acoustics on the violins, and finally the three voices were imposed. These were his most revolutionary contributions.

Songs like “El martes”, “Yuya Martínez”, “La flaca” y “Te lo gastaste todo”, became hits of the moment. They were heard everywhere and had to be played in all of their concerts.

For me the first thing is the story that I am going to tell. Believe me, I can’t do anything until I have that story, which I have collected from somewhere

Juan Formell

But not everything was in favour of Los Van Van. At the beginning of the 70s there was a very elitist sector within the Cuban popular music, where Formell was not very welcome. Nonetheless, Los Van Van continued in their search for a new format and kept innovating. A few years later they ended up conquering the entire Cuban people with songs such as “Baile del buey cansa’o”, “Anda, ven y muévete” o “Deja la bobería”.

Related Post: 7 New Cuban Alternative Music Bands You Should Know About

Once Formell was asked about the way he created his songs, he replied: “For me the first thing is the story that I am going to tell. Believe me, I can’t do anything until I have that story, which I have collected from somewhere. I have never disassociated myself from the life of the Cuban population because I like to live with my people, stand in the same lines, listen to their conversations… The bakery queue is the best for that: there you can hear amazing stories! And the fact is that the Cuban is able to sum up a very important thing with a single sentence. And from that sentence many times I have been able to build many stories. But after having that story comes something that is very important for me: the montuno. I believe that the quality of the chorus is what decides the quality of the song you want your audience to dance. So I start backwards, looking for a montuno that moves the audience. And just as there is a vocation, destiny and coincidences in life, there is also a mysterious thing called inspiration which I don’t know exactly where it comes from but it allows you to start creating the song. But none of this is easy and life has shown me that when you make a song, nothing happens only with that song. A case of inspiration was “La titimanía”. I knew about that phrase and one day I was driving my car and saw another driver who stopped to collect a beautiful girl and he opened the door for her and I said to myself, “she has titimanía” and I started singing the refrain right there. That’s inspiration, right?”.

And the Grammy arrived!

Eager for research and experimentation and trying to make the most of the expressive resources of the son, he created what is considered the most authentic orchestra of popular dance music, Los Van Van. His lyrics are distinguished by the use of picaresque, irony and manners. “Titimanía” and “Por encima del nivel”, are two exponents of an endless list of hits.

The first Grammy Award arrived in 2000 with the album “Llegó Van Van” (“Van Van is Here”).

In addition, Formell wrote music for cinema, theatre and TV.

Some awards from his fruitful career are:

  • 2002: First Degree Felix Varela Order
  • 2008: Special World Music Award
  • 2010: Doctorate Honoris Causa from the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA)
  • 2013: Womex Artist Award and Latin Grammy Award for Musical Excellence

At the 2013 Grammy ceremony he expressed: “my life has been totally devoted to music and it only makes sense when people make it their own and enjoy it”. 

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Juan Formell passed away on May 1st 2014 in Havana, but his legacy has transcended all geographical, generational and political borders.

For us it is a commitment to defend what he left behind. Oh Juanito! Come down and look at this!”. With these words ended a concert that Los Van Van offered on the steps of the University of Havana, on the 45th anniversary of its foundation and a few months after the death of Juan Formell, the band’s director for more than four decades.

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Miguel Freijo Buendia is the founder of the Havana Music School, an independent project that provides music lessons to anyone interested in Cuban music. After working in the stock market for more than twelve years, Miguel decided to take a break for three months and went to Cuba to study bass guitar. He began his journey in Pinar del Río, the town where his grandfather was born, but soon moved to Havana where he took bass lessons with Fernando Tort. The experience and lessons changed his life completely and after graduating from bass guitar, he decided to stay longer in the island playing Cuban music and attending many live concerts every week. He is married to Claudia and they proudly welcomed the birth of their child, Luna in 2019.

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