Juan Formell: Thanks for the Music



Juan Formell & Habanos

“My cultural ties with the habano are basically cultural. Even though I quit smoking over fifteen years ago, and I mostly smoked cigarettes, every once in a while I used to accept a habano, usually after a meal or as a gift, but I wasn’t a regular habano smoker.” “The one thing I like the most is the symbolism in it, because habanos, like our music, are part of the Cuban culture, of our own idiosyncrasy. That’s why we are so keyed up about the concert we’ll throw for the opening night of the 16th Habano Festival.” “We hope to play a number of anthological Van Van songs that are about to turn forty years old and that have become classics in Cuba’s popular music. We’ll tour around the band’s musical history, and though it won’t be possible to perform over 300 songs under our belts, we’ll try to put out the most representative tunes of all.”


He graduated as an English teacher and even made a few translations, but the fact of the matter is that the great Juan Formell, born in the Havana barrio of Cayo Hueso, came to this world above all to renovate Cuban popular music and found, back in December 1969, los Van Van, by far the best band of its kind on this island nation that oozes out pure melody. Adored by dancers and respected by connoisseurs and experts, he grew to become an admired instrumentalist, songwriter and arranger thanks to his father’s influence, a musician by trade and friend of such celebrated figures as Ernesto Lecuona and Bebo Valdes.


“I loved watching my dad sitting next to the piano, composing music. He was an excellent copyist. He used to copy music scores as if he were using font types… I mean, music runs in my blood, by inheritance, though I wanted to play bass, the backbone instrument of any band,” recounts the author of memorable songs that have become anthems and hymns for the people of this land. The musical environment that surrounded the famous Callejón de Hamel, where he cut is music teeth, panned out to be a basic link in his artistic career: the Grammy Award for Musical Excellence (granted by vote of the Management Committee of the Latin Recording Academy to those artists who have made major creative contributions of exceptional importance in the recording field during the course of their careers) and the 2013 WOMEX to the Artist of the Year, bestowed since 1999 to boldface names of international music as “recognition to the musical excellence, social significance, commercial success, political impact and career.”


“I always say that I was lucky to roam these streets around the Hamel Alley and the Espada Alley. It was there where Ángel Díaz, César Portillo used to gather... It0s true that back then I was only a kid, I was probably 10 years old and I couldn’t join them, but I couldn’t look the other way either,” he recalls. Those were the times of La Aragon, Aresenio Rodriguez, as well as Elvis Presley, The Beatles… and Formell sucked that much in like a restless sponge, the same way he went unraveling jazz, Brazilian music, and eventually devoted to the cultivation of Caribbean rhythms: reggae, meringue… taking from these and those, and he came up with songo, “a new kind of Cuban dance beat that hinges on son, though it’s not exactly the same.”


Make no mistakes about it; just like Chucho Valdes and Irakere, or El Tosco (Jorge Luis Cortes) made it, just to name but a few, this creator, recognized in 2008 with one of the  Special World Awards granted by the World Entertainment Organization (WEO), broke away with the musical patterns that dominated the performance scene at the time. However, this effort actually paid off when Van Van became a dream come true.


Before that, though, it was necessary for Formell to learn from men like Juanito Marquez –the top arranger of institutional bands like Riverside and Hermanos Aviles- and joined the band led by Elio Reve. Nevertheless, he admits that “rather than adapting myself to that format (charanga), I started to make arrangements of my own, to write songs, and the orchestra took flight! Then I said to myself, ‘wait a minute, I’ve got what it takes for this.’”


Following that tremendously enriching experience, Van Van jumped onstage at a time when Cuba was dreaming of producing 10 million tons of sugar. “Indeed, the band was not named after the sugarcane harvest’s slogans that dominated the airwaves back then, like “¡De que van, van!” or “¡Oye, eso va y de que van, van!...”


It happened that when it was time to give the band a name, I remember many names were way too wordy and long. Then I said we needed a catchy name, something like pam pam, or something like that. And then I thought, ‘why not the Van Van?” Thus, he started out his own way to success with a band that has also been a school and has produced five Platinum albums (two for Ay, Dios, Ampárame, and three for their latest live presentation), plus a Gold album for 25 years of nonstop musical career by Juan


Formell and Van Van. Like a tabloid columnist once labeled Juan Formell is the author  of blockbusters that still make the most demanding dancers on the face of the earth shake a leg, such as El buey cansao, Anda, ven y muévete (versioned by Ruben Blades),

La foto en la prensa, La titimanía, El negro está cocinando, La Habana no aguanta más... Yet he’s also drawn to social critique, without relinquishing the refined Cuban sense of humor, the mind-in-the-gutter lyrics inherited from maestros like Matamoros, Piñeiro, Ñico Saquito and El Guayabero.


“Sometimes I write critical songs; others are chronicles with driving reasons behind them. But I always use a simple language that dancers can enjoy. I like wandering the streets because it’s there where you hear the wittiest expressions. And out of a phrase I write a song and spin a yarn, basically because that’s what people say all the time and make people dance. That’s the difference between the salsa composed in New York City or Puerto Rico.”


It was that unmistaken montuno what the winner of the 2003 National Music Award speaks about, the one that moved thousands of people that swarmed at the Revolution Square to watch live the Peace Without Borders Concert that gathered quite a number of world-class performers and acts.


“I immediately understood that Van Van’s role is actually transcendental. I knew I had one way or another to enthrall nearly a million people gathered at the plaza. And the best way to get that done was by “pumping up the jam, that something that jumps off your chest, you know? I saw Olga Tañon and Miguel Bose crying, and suddenly all Cuba was in Van Van.”