Juan Formell, the founder and leader of Cuba’s leading dance band Los Van Van, has died. The bassist, composer and arranger, whose songs formed the soundtrack of contemporary Cuba since 1969, was 71 years old.
“The loss of Formell is without a doubt a heavy blow for Cuban culture,” the Cuban newspaper Granma said upon publishing the news this evening (May 1), announcing that Cuba was in mourning. Los Van Van, whose music over the years has itself been likened to Havana’s newspaper for lyrics that detailed the evolution of life on the island, is known for the funky percussive rhythm that Formell and his collaborators called songo. Formell was a mentor to musicians in Cuba and an influence on international tropical artists, including Ruben Blades, who recorded his song “Muevate” with his band Seis del Solar.
Formell was honored with a Latin Grammy Lifetime achievement award in 2013. The homage followed decades in which the music of his internationally celebrated group’s music had been ignored by Latin radio in the United States. Los Van Van began touring the United States in the 1990s after a loosening of the embargo against Cuba began allowing the island’s musicians to tour here.
The cause of Formell’s death was not immediately announced.