Bassist Juan Carlos Formell dies after a heart attack onstage. He was 59 Singer-songwriter Juan Carlos Formell was born into Cuban music royalty but forged his own path. He was the bassist for Los Van Van, one of the most influential bands from post-Revolution Cuba.

Bassist Juan Carlos Formell dies after a heart attack onstage. He was 59

Bassist Juan Carlos Formell dies after a heart attack onstage. He was 59

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1179378128/1179378129" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Singer-songwriter Juan Carlos Formell was born into Cuban music royalty but forged his own path. He was the bassist for Los Van Van, one of the most influential bands from post-Revolution Cuba.

A MART├ŹNEZ, HOST:

Cuban singer-songwriter Juan Carlos Formell of Los Van Van has passed away. The band was among the most influential from post-Revolution Cuba, and Formell was a musical force of nature. Here's NPR's Jasmine Garsd.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Juan Carlos Formell was born in Havana into music royalty. His grandfather, Francisco Formell, was a conductor of the Havana Philharmonic. In 1969, his father, Juan Formell, co-founded the iconic Afro-Cuban band Los Van Van.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POR ENCIMA DEL NIVEL")

LOS VAN VAN: (Singing in Spanish).

GARSD: But the younger Formell very much forged his own path. He studied and played with some of the greats of Cuban music but felt stifled by the regime's control of the music industry, so he defected in 1993. While on tour in Mexico, he crossed the border, eventually moving to New York. His debut solo album, "Songs From A Little Blue House," was nominated for a Grammy in 2000. He released four more solo albums after that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YANBANDO")

JUAN CARLOS FORMELL: (Singing in Spanish).

GARSD: It wasn't until 2014, when his father passed away, that Formell agreed to become the bassist for Los Van Van. The band excelled at building on Afro-Cuban music with rock, disco and hip-hop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL BUEY CANSAO (FEAT. TELMARY)")

LOS VAN VAN: (Singing in Spanish).

GARSD: NYU Professor Carlos Chirinos says this is what made Los Van Van so special since their inception, the mix of tradition with new styles.

CARLOS CHIRINOS: Los Van Van took the popular music sound of rock and pop, kind of mixed it with the traditional charanga format that was originally just violins and flute.

GARSD: Their last album was a family affair. His brother, Samuel, plays drums, and sister Vanessa is a vocalist. Formell was performing in the Bronx last Friday when he stepped away from his bass. He was having a fatal heart attack. He was 59 years old.

Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERTO FONSECA'S "EL SONADOR ESTA CANSADO")

Copyright © 2023 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.