We have recently lost many great musicians and artists, including Cheo Feliciano, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and now Juan Formell, the founder of Los Van Van, the band that changed Cuban popular music forever. Formell was also a bassist, singer, composer, arranger and producer, as well as an avid promoter of Cuban music.
Born in Havana on Aug. 2, 1942, Formell passed away May 1 at the age of 71. His musical apprenticeship began at home with his father Francisco Formell, a flautist, pianist and arranger. As a young man, Juan Formell became bassist and composer for some of the greatest bands in Cuba, working with Félix Guerrero, Rafael Somavilla, Armando Romeu, Antonio Taño and Orestes Urfé. In the late ’60s, he was the musical director for Elio Revé’s extremely popular band, before finally starting his own group, Los Van Van, in 1969 (with many former members of Revé’s charanga).
Los Van Van transformed Cuban popular music, building from the basis of the charanga tradition, but adding drum set, electric bass and synthesizers, and a healthy dose of funk, soul and rock ‘n’ roll to the mix. In the ’70s and ’80s, together with the band, including drummer José Luis Quintana, AKA “Changuito,” and pianist Cesar “Pupy” Pedroso, Van Van developed the songo rhythmic style, which laid the groundwork for the timba music wave of the 1990s.
In the 1980s, Los Van Van had a number of huge hits in Cuba and internationally in Latin America, including “Sandunguera (Por Encima Del Nivel),” “Anda, Ven y Muévete,” “Que Palo Es Ese.” Watch them play “Sandunguera” live on Cuban TV:
As the years passed, the musical style and personnel of the group changed to accommodate the timba era. Many different singers passed through the orquesta, including Mayito Rivera, Roberto Hernandez “Roberton,” Yeni Valdes and Adbel “Lele” Rasalps. During 2011 Mayito Rivera left the band for a solo career and was replaced by Mandy Cantero. On drums, Changuito, was replaced by Juan Formell’s son, Samuel Formell, who has taken over the management of the group from his father in recent years. Check out the band live in Havana in 2006, paying homage to the orishas of Santería:
And a heavy tune featuring Abdel “Lele” Rasalps, son of one of the founders, Miguel Angél “Lele” Rasalps:
In 1999, Los Van Van won a Latin Grammy for their album Llegó…Van Van, and in 2013, Juan Formell received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for his amazing contribution to Cuban, Latin and music in general. We’ll leave you with a beautiful interview with Formell from 2013: