A joke known in Havana and in Miami’s Cuban community may start making the rounds again, tinged with sadness this time, as fans and fellow artists mourn the loss of Juan Formell, the founder of Cuba’s 45-year-old dance band Los Van Van. The story goes that years from now, Fidel Castro comes back from the dead in search of his legacy. He finds the entry for his name in an encyclopedia: “Fidel Castro Ruz, Cuban politician in the era of Los Van Van.”
Formell, who died Thursday, May 1, in Havana, was one of the most internationally recognized Cubans of his time, and an artist whose music transcended boundaries: national, generational, and political.
“The loss of Formell is without a doubt a heavy blow for Cuban culture,” Cuban Music Institute officials said in a statement published in the newspaper Granma, announcing Formell’s death. “An ambassador for Cuban music and a maestro for various generations of artists. With his death Cuba loses one of its greatest and most prolific sons.”
Thursday evening, news of Formell’s passing began to circulate via Tweets by fans and fellow musicians, including salsa artists Luis Enrique and NKlabe.
La música cubana esta de luto, se nos fue Juan Formel, fundador de los Van Van. Mi más sentido pésame a su familia. Su legado vivirá. QEPD
— Luis Enrique (@LuisEnrique) May 2, 2014
Wow!! Otro pa’ la rumba del cielo!! RIP #JuanFormell !! #VanVan #Cuba
— Nklabe (@Nklabe) May 2, 2014
Born in 1942, Formell was a working musician by age 15. In 1959, he joined the newly formed Revolutionary National Police band as bass player. After playing with several popular orchestras of the day, Formell founded Los Van Van in late 1969. His aim was to refresh Cuban dance music and create a new sound.
“We had an incredible response from the beginning,” recalled Formell, in a conversation I had with him when Los Van Van first toured the United States in 1997. “By 1972 there wasn’t any other band that the people wanted to see, only Los Van Van. We created music that had a sound with influences from pop, rock, and jazz, from a lot of different sources, but without abandoning our Cuban roots. We’ve had a lot of phases, and other bands have come along and really recuperated the orchestra format, but we’ve always maintained our popularity.”
Formell and his early collaborators, notably the pianist and composer Cesar “Pupy” Pedroso and charismatic fedora-wearing singer Pedro Calvo, hit on a formula for music with an irresistible groove, whose sound and subject matter were distinctly Cuban. They dubbed their rhythm “songo,” although in later years it has become known as timba, or, internationally, simply salsa. While there are plenty of party anthems and sexy songs in the Van Van repertoire, the band’s music has also served to document – and satirize – more sober realities of contemporary Cuba. The band’s name, which can be loosely translated as “The Go Gos,” was taken from a slogan that was part of Castro’s unsuccessful attempt to increase Cuba’s sugar harvest in 1970.
“It’s social chronicle, it’s not political,” Formell explained. “Well, what’s social can be political, but it’s not intended as a criticism of the government, it’s just about things that are happening around us. There are things that you can’t say clearly, so you disguise them. That’s fundamental in our music.”
Los Van Van, who tour regularly in Europe, Latin America and Japan, were revolutionary in Cuba, where they frequently perform at massive outdoor concerts. But they also forged a path for other Cuban musicians in the United States, particularly when they played a controversial concert in 1999 at the Miami Arena, where police in riot gear protected concertgoers from Cuban exile demonstrators outside, who called the musicians “agents of Castro.”
“There were seven thousand angry protesters outside the Miami Arena while 2,500 ecstatic dancers inside couldn’t get enough,” concert presenter Debbie Ohanian recalls. “A few months later they won a Grammy (for their album “Llego Van Van”) and I became ACLU person of the year.” Ohanian later won a lawsuit against the City of Miami for reimbursement of $36,000 in security fees she paid to secure the venue.
In 2013, the Latin Grammy Academy honored Formell with a special career Award for Artistic Excellence. He dedicated the award to “To Cuban musicians and to all of the Cubans around the world.”
At the time of Formell’s death, Los Van Van was finishing an album, “La Fantasía,” due out this summer.
Juan Formell’s ashes will be on view in the lobby of Havana’s Cuban National Theater on May 2. On May 3, artists will pay musical homage to him in venues around the island country. In Havana, Trillo Park, known as a gathering place for Afro-Cuban percussionists, will serve as the center for the popular tribute to Formell.