Juan Formell: Remembering Cuba's Musical Nonconformist

Juan Formell, director of Cuban band Los Van Van, died May 1.

Juan Formell, director of Cuban band Los Van Van, died May 1. Enrique De La Osa/Reuters/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Enrique De La Osa/Reuters/Corbis

Los Van Van leader Juan Formell, who died May 1 in Havana, often said it was the group's job to make people dance. Under his direction, Cuba's hardest-working band delivered on that promise for almost 45 years, as anyone who has attended — or rather participated in — a Van Van concert has learned after being carried away, hands in the air, by the group often dubbed "the Cuban music train."

For Formell, whose quiet public demeanor belied an awareness of both the times he lived in and his place in history, dance music came with a message. Through the decades, Los Van Van's songs chronicled realities of contemporary Cuban life and, in the Cuban tradition, lightened the load with social satire and sexual innuendo.

The life lessons contained in Los Van Van's best songs — whether social, spiritual or suggestive — transcend place, but the band has always belonged to Havana. One testimony to Formell's significance in Cuba was the flower arrangement sent on behalf of Fidel and Raul Castro to stand by the bandleader's ashes and his baby bass at the National Theater in Havana, 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."

It was difficult to select just five songs to honor Juan Formell. Consider this an introduction, as well as a tribute, to the music of Los Van Van.

Juan Formell: Five Songs

  • Los Van Van, 'Marilu'

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    Los Van Van's early romantic hit "Marilu," written by Formell, added electric guitar and American-style pop vocals to a rhythmic Cuban bolero. "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," said the bandleader, who founded the group in 1969.

  • Los Van Van, 'La Habana No Aguanta Mas'

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    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 desperate post-Soviet period in the early '90s.

  • Los Van Van, 'Esto Te Pone La Cabeza Mala'

    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 Communist 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 won a Grammy for its album from that year, Llegó Van Van.

  • Los Van Van, 'Anda, Ven y Muevate'

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    Ruben Blades reworked Formell's "Anda, Ven y Muevate" to create his well-known anti-racism song "Muevate," recorded with his band Seis del Solar in 1985. Although Los Van Van's music is often referred to as salsa, its own funky, dance-'til-you-drop version of the song showcases the band's evolving musical fusion.

    "I've always liked to break the mold," Formell said in a recent interview with Cuba's Granma. "I'm a nonconformist by nature and I don't regret it."

  • Los Van Van, 'Me Matengo'

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    The title of one of Los Van Van's recent songs, "Me Mantengo" (I'm Still Here), gained special significance with the news of Juan Formell's passing. Van Van fans can take solace in the news that the band recently recorded another album, due out this summer.

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