Juan Formell: Talking about salsa By Rafael Lam

15 November 2013 — Granma

El músico argentino, Fito Páez (centro) junto a músicos de la orquesta cubana, Los Van Van, durante la inauguración del XXXIV Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano, en el teatro Karl Marx, en La Habana, Cuba, el 4 de diciembre de 2012. AIN FOTO/Abel ERNESTO/sdl

El músico argentino, Fito Páez (centro) junto a músicos de la orquesta cubana, Los Van Van, durante la inauguración del XXXIV Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano, en el teatro Karl Marx, en La Habana, Cuba, el 4 de diciembre de 2012. AIN FOTO/Abel ERNESTO/sdl

JUAN Formell has a new award this year, the Grammy Special Prize for Excellence. With his group Los Van Van, he has already received the Artist of the World Prize at the WOMEX Expo (October 23-27, 2013 in Cardiff, Wales). This is the first time that a Cuban has received this prize.

“All prizes are always merits to Cuban music, to the sustained work of our musicians with the rich music that identifies us,” Formell affirmed.

During the 14th Grammy Latino Awards, scheduled for the Mandalay Bay Event Center in Las Vegas (November 20), a special recognition will go to Formell, the Special Prize for Excellence 2013, from the Latin American Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (LARAS).

This prize is given to artists who have made creative contributions throughout their careers and Formell is described as a musical innovator.

These are not the only recognitions received by Los Van Van during their 44 years of performing. In 1992, the U.S. Newsweek defined them as one of the five most talented salsa bands, thanks to the anthological album Songo. In the same period, The New York Times included them among international salsa greats of the preceding five years.

In 1999, when salsa was declining and being reviled, Los Van Van received the Grammy Award for salsa with Llegó Van Van.

The group’s first visit to New York was a great moment. For Formell it was, “The dream we had made reality, to break the industry’s musical blockade, to demonstrate in this musical Mecca that Cuban music is alive, that Cuba is queen of salsa and timba.”

The dream came true on the same date of Los Van Van’s very first debut, but 37 years later: from December 4, 1996 to February 1997. The first concert was in Puerto Rico and from there they traveled to New York.

“After having toured the world, we’re finally in the city we have missed,” exclaimed Mayito Rivera in the first New York concert. “Salsa comes from Cuba and I have brought it,” said Formell in a chorus.

International news agencies reported, “Los Van Van have succeeded for the first time in gaining permission from the U.S. to tour the country and their leader, Juan Formell, assures that he will always return to Cuba because it is that country which gives him his inspiration.”

In a Newsweek interview, Formell confirmed that he wouldn’t remain in the United States, saying that he liked living in Cuba and would have no motivation to be in New York. “The importance of my work has been to narrate what there is around me. If I leave that environment I would be empty.”

“The Cubans have finally arrived”, “Los Van Van are producing sparks on New York stages”, Los Van Van attract thousands of fans on the West Coast”, “They came, they played and they won hearts”, were some of the headlines in the country’s most important newspapers.

Salsa guru Tito Puente acknowledged, “When Cuban musicians begin to arrive in the United States, we’ll have to go back to school.”

After this resounding event, Los Van Van embarked on a world tour which extended to the Holy Land.

Recounting the life and work of Juan Formell involves going back to the decade of the 1950’s, when he took his first steps in music in the Havana neighborhood of Cayo Hueso, inspired by his father, a musician, copyist, flute player, professor, composer and friend of eminent musicians such as Ernesto Lecuona and Bebo Valdés.

“When I review my life, I think that my destiny was always to be a musician, despite everything, I was going to be one. Everyone comes with their set of genes, their DNA and their dossier in life, that’s how it is.”

Formell absorbed the entire musical environment of his time; Cuban music through Pérez Prado, Benny Moré, the big bands, the son ensembles in the style of Arsenio, El Casino and La Sonora Matancera, the danzón charangeras and those of the cha-cha-cha in the style of the bands Aragón, Sensación, Melodias del 40, Fajardo y sus Estrellas, the feelin of Portillo de la Luz, José Antonio Méndez and Elena Burke.

And internationally: the rock and roll of Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and his Comets, heard on juke boxes in his neighborhood.

Formell has the experience of music bands, combos in the style of Guillermo Rubalca, the Caribe cabaret bands at the Havana Libre Hotel, where he played with Carlos Faxas and Juanito Márquez.

And, as part of this destiny, the appearance of the wizard Elio Revé with his band, in which Formell began to understand the world of the charangas, the secrets of the mysterious clave, the tricks to get people dancing.

“I began my experiments with the Revé band, it was a casual thing, but once I had my own band, everything was thought out, studied, analyzed and well projected with my own ideas in all their extension.”

Of course, band directors are never alone, they are surrounded by other musicians with ideas and the wildness of youth, with this thirst for triumph which surrounds new talent, full of illusions and hopes. César Pedroso “Pupy” and José Luis Quintana “Changuito”, collaborated in the development of Formell’s songo rhythm.

One of the secrets of Los Van Van consisted of the essentially Cuban nature of the tumbao and montuno rhythms, something which differentiates him from the gentle salsa played by New York Latino bands in the 1970’s. “They didn’t exploit this great Cuban montuno and that’s one of the differences in our music,” affirms Formell.

Los Van Van have made more than 30 albums, without counting compilations or works on other disks. They also have a DVD of their second 2006 national tour, directed by Ian Padrón.

In “El tren se va”, Juan Formell wrote:

When salsa is talked about

You will remember my name,

Because within me is hidden

The magic of making you dance.

You will repeat singing

A thousand things that I have said

And you will ask me permission,

Because I am the Van Van.

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