Los Van Van is Cuba’s most famous dance music orchestra formed on December 4, 1969 by bassist Juan Formell. The legendary group became known for the particular sound they created, the Songo, and went on to become the most popular band on the island, touring the world and winning awards with their unique funky sound, but always adapting and innovating, while reflecting Cuban everyday themes and popular issues, with allusions to food, sex and good times, in their sharply observant, mischievous and funny lyrics. They continue to be in the top echelon of music produced on the island Although Juan Formell died on 1 May 2014 his son Samuel Formell now leads the band.
This year 2019 they celebrate 50 years with a new album, a world tour and a special Festival of Timba ‘Forever Formell’ dedicated to their founder this August.
A commemorative plaque is due to be unveiled at the corner of 23rd and P Streets in Havana a block away from where the group will perform in the Mega concert on August 3 at the corner of 23 and Malecon.
“I’ve always liked to break the mould,” Juan Formell said in a interview with Cuban press. “I’m a nonconformist by nature and I don’t regret it.”
Creation of the orchestra
In 1969, when Juan Formell left the Revé orchestra (led by Elio Reve) he decided to form his own group. In the beginning, Van Van explored the innovation and style that Juan Formell had experimented with in the Revé Orchestra, namely: use of the electric bass, organ, electric guitar, replacement of the flute (typical of Cuban brass/charanga bands) by a group of vocalists, and using the string instruments more for rhythms than melody.
Also the basic rhythms were transformed with piano and bass, in which José Luis Quintana (Changuito) played a leading role, by bringing in more percussion instruments and sounds.
Thus, the ‘son’* was fused with elements of rock and jazz, to give rise to what became known as “songo”. José Luis Quintana (Changuito), Raúl Cárdenas (El 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 (El Lele), along with Juan Formell, were some of the musicians who, during the 1970s, managed to establish a sound that has become a permanent seal in the work of Los Van Van, beyond changes in the lineup of its members. Since then and to date several generations of Cubans have danced to them, while the group’s sound continued to evolve and be open to new influences.
The Los Van Van sound
The birth of ‘songo’ created new possibilities in Cuban dance music.
“Surprisingly – as is often the case – the first big innovation came from where it was least expected: in the context of the traditional ‘charanga’ based around violins, flute and percussion, a framework that seemed to have exhausted its possibilities after the chachachá. By 1968 it was the Revé orchestra, with its arranger Juan Formell. In 1969, this same Formell with his electric bass and his arrangements, headed up his own orchestra, Los Van Van, and revolutionized the music scene.
Changing the sound by introducing electronic instruments, also brought a different orchestral arrangement, especially in the strings, and the basic rhythm components were transformed affecting both the double bass and the percussion section, centred on the drummer José Luis Quintana (Changuito), expert in Afro-Cuban rhythms. The style of the voices also changed, and Van Van’s unquestionable success inevitably brought followers and imitators.
In my opinion, a significant contribution from Formell has been to show the perennial vitality of the Cuban son, because it is clear that, just as the ‘mambo’ was created from an invigorating injection of the eastern Cuban ‘montuno son’ into the traditional ‘danzón’, the rhythm of Van Van is born from a new encounter with the irrepressible rhythmic impulse of the soneros, within the same orchestral context that had abandoned the danzón for twenty years to become an exclusive reserve of the chachacha.” Leonardo Acosta
Formell explains the relationship with the ‘son’* like this: “… I have always tried to understand how a good son is made. I study that music seriously, its structure, the text, refrain … they are patterns that I have tried to follow faithfully.”
But there were also other influences, which come primarily from Brazilian and North American music. This is how Formell transformed the ‘charanga’ he inherited from Revé, to which he brought new sounds and a repertoire that changed the way of making and dancing Cuban music in the ‘70s until today. Orquesta Revé had popularized the changüí, using the pailas played by Elio Revé, the Chinese caja (box), the drum beat and the rhythm on piano. All these elements were later turned into this group: Los Van Van, in which contemporary orchestration and a tight performance, enabled each section of the orchestra to be distinguished.
José Luis Quintana (Changuito), who changed the percussion, that determined the style of Los Van Van, cannot be separated from Formell’s drive for innovation.
The rhythm of the ‘songo’ is also different from the rest of the Cuban groups of the late 1970s. Formell explained:
“We did not sell it as something new, nor too original, because I think that all the rhythms are the fruits of various mixtures. We called it ‘songo’. Then we even forgot we had called it that … However, especially abroad, ‘songo’ was recognized as a genre. When versions of our songs have been made, this classification has been entered next to the title. There are magazines that have published how the ‘songo’ is played and what are its characteristics, […] we recorded an album with the British label Island Records to which we gave that name. And with that it began to spread throughout the world […]. We knew that from the sound point of view we were different from the rest of the orchestras known as salsa. We have a very definite timbre, which has matured and evolved over time, but is unmistakable.”
This is demonstrated in the way Formell used percussion in the track ‘Havana to Matanzas’; by the rock accent that appears in ‘Anda, ven y muevete’ (‘Let’s go, come and get moving’); ‘El Martes’ (‘On Tuesday’), a piece in which he combines ‘son’ with elements of 60s pop, or rap, with ‘Deja la bobería’ (‘Leave the stupidness behind’), without losing the Cubanness that has always identified him. With his innovations, Juan Formell refreshed the Cuban music scene, expanding the possibilities of how music could be played.
This music was composed to be danced to and Juan Formell always wrote the music before the lyrics but also he captured the public imagination by using Cuban humour, social satire, sexual innuendo and contemporary everyday phrases in the lyrics, in pieces like ‘Dale calabaza al pollo’ (‘Give pumpkin to the chicken’), ‘Tranquilo Motay’ (‘Chill, Motay’) and ‘ Baile del buey cansa’o’. Formell did not stop experimenting, and in the 80s he introduced trombones and then the synthesizer.
Formell affirmed that: “The use of synthesizers and electronic instruments has enriched Cuban music. It has not taken away its natural flavour and with them it remains, equally, an expression of our culture and our land …”
Writing the lyrics
On how he developed the subject and lyrics of the songs, Formell said:
“For me the first thing is the story that I am going to tell. Yes, 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 population, not for nothing, but because I like to live with people, stand in line, listen to conversations. The bakery queue is ideal for that: there you hear everything … And it is because Cubans sometimes have this skill in summarising a very important thing with a single phrase. And from a phrase sometimes I build a story. But once I have the story I have to develop the montuno – the call and response – which is very decisive for me. I believe that the quality of the chorus is what decides the fate of a dance track. So I start in reverse, looking for a montuno that moves the dancer. And, like vocation, destiny, coincidence, there is a mysterious thing in life called inspiration, I do not know exactly where it comes from but suddenly you start making the song.”
Formell brought the tradition of social chronicling in Cuban music into contemporary times with songs like “La Habana No Aguanta Más” (“Havana Can’t Take Any More”). The song told a cautionary tale about urban overcrowding, which peaked during the island’s most difficult early part of the Special Period in the early ’90s, after the collapse of the USSR and Eastern bloc as trading partners.
The ever-evolving Los Van Van was at the top of its game when the band took its first U.S. tour in 1997, the year the album Esto te Pone la Cabeza Mala was released. After successful dates in New York, San Francisco and other cities, Formell and the group returned in 1999 for a set of dates that included Miami. Cuban exiles, who viewed the band’s appearance as being sponsored by the Cuban state, were opposed. Thousands of demonstrators, as well as riot police, stood outside the Miami Arena as Los Van Van played inside. While protesters and even Miami officials publicly called the group “agents of Castro,” “traitors” and “dogs,” Formell never flinched, stating that the band had simply come to play. Los Van Van subsequently in 2000 won a Grammy for its album, Llegó Van Van.
On receiving this prestigious award Formell said: “After the triumph of the Revolution we now have the triumph of popular dance music.”
Despite the US blockade and difficulties of promotion and distribution of Cuban music internationally, over the years, and including long before the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon, Los Van Van toured and performed across Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Japan, Canada and United States.
In 2012 Los Van Van was nominated for a Latin Grammy music award, in four categories for the EGREM/AACDAM album La Maquinaria. In 2013, they received the Artist Award at Womex, an important event in the world of international music.
A testimony to Juan Formell’s importance in Cuba were the flowers sent on behalf of Fidel and Raul Castro to stand by the bandleader’s ashes and his baby bass at the National Theatre in Havana after his death in 2014, where thousands of Cubans filed past to pay their respects. More telling was the massive crowd and lineup of multi-generational artists at a night-long concert dedicated to Formell. A headline in the Cuban national newspaper Granma repeated a phrase often heard in Havana: “Van Van Is Cuba.”
In 2017 the group led by Samuel received a Grammy Awards nomination for the album ‘La fantasia: tribute to Juan Formell’, in the category of best tropical album.
The group has recorded 42 albums, and is currently preparing another for the 50th anniversary, with successes from each decade.
WATCH Los Van Van live show performing ‘Anda, ven y muevete’ with singer Pedrito Calvo
WATCH Los Van Van with lead singer Mayito Rivera performing Soy Normal, Natural on Cuban TV in 1993.
WATCH Short interview on youtube: ‘Juan Formell: Just don’t ask me to dance’
*Son cubano is a genre of music and dance that originated in the highlands of eastern Cuba during the late 19th century. It is a syncretic genre that blends elements of Spanish and African origin. The vocal style, lyrical metre and the primacy of the tres, derived from the Spanish guitar come from Spanish tradition, while its characteristic clave rhythm, call and response structure and percussion section (bongo, maracas, etc.) are all rooted in traditions of Bantu origin, brought to Cuba by Africans enslaved by Spanish colonial powers. In the 20th century it became Cuba’s most popular and influential genre of music and it is recognised as the root of Latin music in particular salsa. In the late 20th the Buena Vista Social Club brought world fame and recognition to the traditional son in its own right.