[These are the remarks made Ned Sublette as he presented the 2013 Womex Artist Award to Juan Formell of the legendary Cuban group Los Van Van in Cardiff, Wales, as a storm was about to roll in]
How many of you have been to Cuba?
How many of you have seen Los Van Van play?
You’re in for a treat today. Every Van Van concert is a historic experience, and today they’re going to play with the intensity of an impending storm.
In this kind of recital presentation in a seated auditorium, you get every note of the music, but it’s one level shy of the full experience. For that, you’d have to be standing on Cuban soil, preferably at the outdoor Havana dancehall La Tropical, with thousands of young Cubans putting their hearts into singing along with all the coros, experiencing the nuances of the lyrics in their faces, expressing the polyrhythms by moving different parts of their bodies in different directions, pushing the band to drive them harder. I saw this many times.
I came to Los Van Van late. Their official date of foundation was December 4, 1969, and I first heard them play live in January 1990 in a television studio in Havana, my third day ever in the country, at the taping of a TV special in honor of their twentieth anniversary. All that time already they’d been the maximum institution of Cuban popular music. I’d heard their records, though their records weren’t easy to get, given the pariah status of Cuba in the United States, which is why I subsequently started a record label called Qbadisc, at a time when there existed maybe five or ten CDs of Cuban music in the world.
You can’t imagine Cuban music without Los Van Van, any more than you can imagine the world’s music without Cuba. Havana was the first great music capital of the hemisphere. Already in the 16th century, musical ideas traveled from Havana back to Spain and up through Europe. Cuban influence has been heard worldwide ever since then, and Cuba’s a world power in music today. But following the change of government in 1959, after Cuba declared independence from the United States, a whole world came crashing down. Many musicians left, but more stayed. Technical resources vanished. Spare parts couldn’t be gotten. Impresarios fled. The country was embargoed, and, unfortunately, still is, by the United States. Cuban music had to be rebuilt, phoenix-like, out of the ashes. That process took years, out of earshot of most of the world, and it took until the 90s for Cuban music to reclaim its place on the world’s music stage after disappearing for decades into the memory hole.
During those long years, especially after the disappearance of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, during the austerities of what the Cuban government called the Special Period in Time of Peace, it seemed at times that Cubans were surviving on music. A popular song carried a lot of weight in Cuba, where media channels were few but far-reaching. A coro didn’t attain its full meaning until the entire country, from children to seniors, had sung it for a few months. People didn’t come out to hear old hits. They came to hear something new, something that would speak to their situation, and bands competed furiously to provide it.
Juan Formell began putting his coros into the Cuban air in 1968, when he first came to prominence as music director, composer, and bassist of Elio Revé’s group Changüí ’68. After a year and a half or so, he left that band to start his own group, and was joined by a number of musicians he had worked with in Revé’s band, who wanted to be part of the new thing. The first Van Van album sounds fresh today. Despite the technical limitations of the time and place, it’s a fabulous record that already contains the basic elements of the Van Van project. It was utterly experimental in the way it broke with the then prevailing harmonic and rhythmic practices. I love salsa, which is based on pre-revolutionary Cuban music, but this is something else. This music took an alternative path, drawing on deep Cuban roots not to answer, but to ask, contemporary questions.
There’s a song they opened their sets with in the 90s: Qué tiene Van Van que siga ahí? What does Van Van have that it keeps going like this? What does it take to be not only the greatest dance band in Cuba, of all places, but to stay on top for almost forty-five years in that highly competitive musical environment, which among other things depends on continually being able to please the teenage dancing public?
Formell updated the band’s sound constantly – not to be trendy, but to take advantage of new instrumental and technical possibilities, as individual musicians came and went. I count twenty-three studio albums over forty-four years, and, despite an almost total turnover of personnel, if you listen to their first album from 1969 back-to-back with the last one, La Maquinaria, from 2011, despite all the changes, there’s a unity to it. Nobody else in Cuba or anywhere sounds Los Van Van. They’ve exerted an enormous influence over the bands that came after them, but nobody could copy their sound. They have a peculiar, original orchestral texture: a charanga instrumentation of flute and violins, but with trombones to fill in the tenor register. They sound like deluxe produced music when they play live.
But that’s just the surface of what’s different about them. Formell changed the rhythmic matrix of Cuban dance music. There’s a steady pulse, which people raised on rock and roll can identify with – cha, cha, cha, cha, easy for anyone to dance to. But then there are all these internal polyrhythms. Formell brought in the rhythms of the great classical music of West Africa, the batá rhythms of the Yoruba religion, into the basic dance texture. He reconceptualized the rhythm section. He popularized the use of the electric bass instead of the upright in Cuba. Los Van Van brought electronics into Cuban music in a different way than any other band I’ve seen. They used a drumset, something you only previously saw in Cuban jazz and rock bands, but they used it differently than either. Los Van Van has had in forty-four years, only three drummers – Blas Egues, the mighty Changuito, and for the last twenty years or so, the drummer’s been Formell’s son, Samuel Formell, who’s presided over an era in which the present-day members of the group all grew up listening to Los Van Van.
Their cubanía shows up not only in the music, but also in the lyrics written by Formell and others, most notably including their great founding pianist and composer César “Pupy” Pedroso. If you want to know what it was like living in Cuba in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and beyond, listen to Van Van, who sang in the language of the people – memorably personified by singer Pedro Calvo, among a number of others — about the challenges and pleasures of contemporary daily life. Even though Van Van played all over the world, the meaning of their music was rooted in the breadlines of Havana, and their validation came at the level of the baile popular, the popular dance. Cabeza, corazón, cintura, hips – lots of bands have two of the three, but Los Van Van has all three. One of Formell’s greatest, simplest lyrics, is a simple exhortation to dance with your heart: Dale con el corazón, muévete, muévete . . .
There have long been two streams of Cuban music – one for domestic consumption, another for export. But Van Van is both. Over the decades, they’ve lived on airplanes, representing Cuba with sabor and dignity in many of the countries that are represented here today. But back in Cuba, they always had a song on the radio. When they have a song out, it stays on Cuban radio sometimes a year and a half, until another Van Van song comes along. You couldn’t gauge popularity by record sales in the unique anti-market of Cuba, so the way you knew who was the most popular was to line all the bands up on the Malecón and see who draws the biggest crowd, and that would be Los Van Van.
In February 1996, with Cuban music at the peak of yet another of its cycles of creativity, I saw the band play six consecutive nights at the Palacio de la Salsa in Havana’s Riviera Hotel. By that point the band had been in existence twenty-six years, and they rehearsed every day, as Cuban bands do. I was present all six nights, and I realized: even with all those years behind them, each night the band was growing. I heard this happen. Each night the band was a quarter of an inch bigger, finding new places to go as they made their way through the complicated, stretched-out arrangements that they played without reading. The band that finished that six-night run was just a little better than the band that started it. This process had been going on, one gig at a time, for decades.
I asked Juan Formell yesterday what it was like – one of those dumb interviewer questons, right? – given the exceptional role of Cuba in the world, what it was like to be emblematic of Cuba both at home and abroad all these years. He said, “to represent your country on a level like this — what more can you ask God for? I don’t think I could ask for more than that.”
I’m happy to bestow this honor on Juan Formell – composer, lyricist, bandleader, bassist, singer — but Cuba bestowed it on him a long time ago. This is Juan’s award, but it’s an award to the heroic musicians of Cuba who kept their country going, to the dozens of people who have played in and facilitated Los Van Van, and it’s ultimately an award to Cuba, which I highly recommend you visit. As Mayito Rivera sang in Formell’s apotheosic “Soy Todo,” Yo soy Van Van, yo soy Cuba.
Ahí na má. Vamos a publicar su foto en la prensa.
 “que seas representativo de tu país a un nivel como este – bueno, qué más se le puede pedir a dios? No creo que yo puedo pedirle más a nadie . . .”
(Photo by Juan Formell)