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SpanishEnglishInterview - Juan Formell - Jan. 20, 2008

Los Van Van’s Juan Formell Still Has the Last Word

From Juventud Rebelde: An interview with Juan Formell, director of “Los Van Van,” one of Cuba’s most popular bands, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2009

haga clic aquí para español

By: Yelanys Hernández and Dora Pérez
Translated by Martin Karakas

E-mail: cult@jrebelde.cip.cu

January 20, 2008 00:41:25 GMT

Juan Formell. Foto: Albert Perera Castro
Foto: Albert Perera Castro

Photos: Courtesy of Juan Formell

Juan Formell is not your average salsa musicians. He doesn’t sport gold chains or other jewellery. In his living room, a large coffee table displays his huge collection of ornamental frogs.  

He is a sonero who tries every day to change the spectrum of what has been eternally established, a constant innovator of music who doesn’t tire of admiring the Beatles and Marilyn Monroe.

Juan Formell is an intelligent communicator who answers the thorniest questions without hesitation. Born in Havana on August 2, 1942, he grew up surrounded by the arts thanks to his father, a musician by trade who played flute and piano, and was a bandleader.

To many, Formell’s work began with La Orquesta Revé, where he started to experiment with instruments typically not included in the charanga format. However, as early as 1965, his compositions were appearing on albums such as one by Elena Burke where Formell was also in charge of the album’s musical arrangements.

But without a doubt, Los Van Van is his greatest project, an orchestra that first appeared in 1969 with a melodic structure setting it apart from other similar bands. Close to 40 years and 30 albums later, Formell and his band continue enjoying immense popularity in Cuba, where fans are eagerly awaiting the release of Arrasando, the group’s latest disc, the first singles of which are already being played on the radio.

In the 1960s, son lost a lot of its popularity, why did this happen?

Juan Formell y el conocido reguetonero puertorriqueño Don Omar

—Several phenomena coincided. One was the appearance of the Beatles, a very important musical event worldwide, which split up at the end of the 1960s. In Cuba, the erroneous decision was made to ban the Beatles from radio broadcast. A very odd decision that people still don’t understand, and which resulted in people having to listen to the Beatles’ music underground.

As a result of their break-up, the public became more interested in them. It was also the golden era of several Spanish bands such as Los Brincos, Los Mustang, which were very popular here.

Benny Moré passed away in 1963. Orquestra Aragón’s popularity began to wane. Peyo El Afrocán´s explosion onto the scene was an incredible phenomenon, but it wasn’t the type of music played in dancehalls. All these events led to the people losing interest in Cuban music, especially dance music. 

This was something that reality motivated me and drove me to introduce changes but without ever abandoning the structure of Cuban son. I took a lot from La Orquesta Revé, which used a charanga format, and included different timbres and more international sounds.”

Why did musicians outside of Cuba initially fail to recognize the changes you were making to widen the concepts of Cuban son?

—Cuban popular music is one of the things most damaged by the [US] blockade. The blockade has made people unaware of the existence of Cuban pop music. Miraculously, we won a Grammy. But the records are hidden away and not properly marketed; for artists living in Cuba it’s very difficult to insert themselves in the marketplace.

In 38 years, the band has gained international prestige. It’s the best dance band in the history of Cuban music. This is recognized, sometimes publicly, sometimes not. You sit down and talk to Oscar de León or Gilberto Santa Rosa and they give you incredible compliments to you personally. But when interviewed, they hardly speak about the issue and many say that they don’t know you. It’s complicated because there is a lot of politics behind it all.

Anyways, Los Van Van has made a great contribution, and if it’s not recognized now, it will be in the future. This doesn’t only happen to us. There are many artistic phenomena that have been vetoed and blocked and haven’t been able to enter into the market.”

What did it mean to Los Van Van to perform in Miami?

Juan Formell junto a su esposa Diana y el conocido salsero boricua Gilberto Santa Rosa

Juan Formell junto a su esposa Diana y el conocido salsero boricua Gilberto Santa Rosa.

—Before going there, we had already made several more important tours around the United States. We’ve worked in the Hollywood Bowl, an amphitheatre where the Beatles and the Rolling Stones have played, and also in Carnegie Hall. That to me was more important because we inserted ourselves into a very difficult world, the world of show business.

In Miami there are a great number of Cubans whose reality is completely different to that of Cubans who live in Italy and Spain and behave differently.

People in the United States are more tangled up in politics; they’re under lots of pressure because it’s bad to talk about Cuba. But Los Van Van doesn’t play political music, and it is ridiculous to say that, because we live on the island, we are bad.

I’m interested in Miami as a market because so many Cubans live there.  Nevertheless, there are other places I’d like to conquer, such as the Asian continent —Japan, China and Vietnam— where people don’t even speak our language. Those types of things are much more appealing to me than fighting with the people in Miami.

How does Los Van Van maintain its popularity?

In the 1970s and 1980s, Los Van Van sang about the daily reality of Cuban’s at the time. Why is it that today most of the songs are love songs? Are you no longer interested in reflecting the Cuban reality?

—We sing about everything, not only love. What happens is that there are stages where the composer nourishes himself on phrases heard on the street, and you use them to write. There was a time when people used to say ‘Eso que anda’ or ‘Que se sepa,’ and you tell a story based on these phrases. That’s a way to make a chronicle.

Another way is to base a story on a theatrical play, as happened with La Habana no aguanta más,’ based on the play ‘La Barbacoa,’ by Abraham Rodríguez. Or once I was asked to write a song for the movie Los pájaros tirándole a la escopeta and I wrote Y qué crees.

Times are different and people change. Another formula for song writing surfaced which I began to fear. There are people who began to use really ugly words, including some reggaeton songs from Puerto Rico. I said to myself, ‘We better not follow that trend, we shouldn’t measure ourselves by the same standards.’ But we continue doing social chronicles, we haven’t totally abandoned it.”

In the 1990s, several popular bands were accused of using vulgar lyrics. Nobody mentioned Los Van Van. How does Formell manage to express Cuban traditions in his songs without resorting to vulgarity?

—For me, vulgarity is to call things by their name, exactly as they are, without using the refinement and the beauty of the double entendre that we Cubans use when talking. In popular music, there are techniques that give flavour and enjoyment to the song, you have to use specific phrase, which does not have to be vulgar.

You can look at examples of artists who came before us, such as Chapotín, Matamoros, and others. ‘Cuidadito, Compay Gallo,’ by Ñico Saquito, is a very ingenious, cunning and beautiful story. But it’s not vulgar.

I learned from those authors. They talk about a certain issue in such a way that the public can come to whatever conclusion they want. Look atLa mujer de Antonio camina así...’. For instance, how would Antonio’s wife walk for a photographer? We all have an Antonio’s wife because everyone has a model of the perfect female that they like.

In the 1980s, there was a song by Los Van Van that went, ‘Si yo subo la loma, voy detrás de ese mulo...’ (If I go up that hill, I’m going behind this mule). There was a story before the chorus that explained that in order to go up a hill, people had to go behind the mule driver. If you want to interpret it differently, suit yourself. That’s the basis of the double entendre, and it’s not vulgar. That’s why Los Van Van have never been accused of using vulgarity.

How is it possible to remain on top in a country full of dance fanatics like ours?

—For us the dancer is the most important. The dancer decides the game. If the public doesn’t dance, we have to look at what went wrong, because what we’re doing isn’t working.

This is music for the masses, not at all for an elite audience. It’s to be enjoyed by everybody. I’ve seen bands playing concerts where the audience is motionless and the singer is saying, ‘Hands in the air, let’s have some fun,’ and nothing happens. It’s horrible.

That’s why, when people say ‘No’ to reggaeton, I say, ‘If people dance to it, and sing it, there must be a reason.’ The masses are never wrong. There might be excessive radio play or other things in play, but if it’s popular, it’s because it has a value. Later on, life will say whether it transcends or not.

Necessary changes

Is Los Van Van a school for the different generations of Cuban musicians?

—I think so, because José Luis Cortés and César (Pupi) Pedroso passed through here. There are also examples from our last stage. I decided to make some changes, not because I’m sick but because I’m hurt by time –I’m diabetic and it takes me a lot of effort to do some things— and I anticipate the day when I’m no longer alive. I had to make so many changes, and I was the first thing I changed.

I brought in a new bass player because I needed a new guy to play the instrument in a really ‘macho’ way; my hands were becoming weak. After that, a number of young musicians joined the band, including piano player Boris Luna, my son Samuel; and Cucurucho on piano, among others. They write and arrange, always under my discernment and point of view.

—Is Juan Formell no longer directing the orchestra?

—I’m still directing it. A popular music orchestra is not directed with a baton in hand, like a classical orchestra. Pop music orchestras are usually directed by someone who’s part of the group.

For me the director is the person who composes, makes the arrangements and establishes the band’s sonority from the very first song. Why? Because the first time I scored a hit, La candela, many people said to me: ‘Great, we did it.’ But four months later people started saying to me ‘Hey, don’t you have another song like that one?’ And I thought, ‘Not like that one, no;’ but a new one would work just like the other one that was popular. So people would then come back saying, ‘We did it again.’

Can you imagine this going on for 38 years, even when the lead singer, at the height of popularity, comes and asks you to leave, or you have to take him out of the orchestra? And you have to look for another singer, someone who may not be able to sing the same songs. This forces you to compose another four songs that are instant hits.

Now, young people in the group who compose support the Van Van sound. Of course, with fresher and more revolutionary ideas, but they follow our base sound. That’s how the orchestra keeps its popularity. It is a trademark that we maintain.

My son Samuel learned this, which means there is a relief pitcher with many years of experience and under my council. But, I’m still working, approving things, writing music and composing. When it comes to recording or organizing a concert, I decide what’s right or wrong. I have the last word.

—Was Van Van’s sound affected with the departure of Pedrito Calvo and Cesar (Pupi) Pedroso?

—I don’t think so. Although they were important musicians, the orchestra moved on. They represented a stage in the history of Van Van. In the case of Pupi, who is a writer and a composer, I think his departure hurt me more than that of Pedrito’s. Pedrito, although he was an attractive image, could be replaced more easily. A composer, however, is more difficult to replace.

What’s valuable is the song; and Pupi is a hit-maker. His hits with Van Van, such as Tranquilo, Mota and Seis semanas are still remembered today. I was saddened by his departure. Nevertheless, the orchestra carries on and nothing is going to happen.

A woman in Van Van?

—Did you include a female singer to follow a trend or in search of a new sound?

— Neither of the two. I started to review the practical results of the orchestra. We do two international tours a year: one in the winter and another in the summer, with more than 20 dates each. We have to travel more than 10 or 12 hours a day by bus, and sometimes held over in an airport up to six hours because the flight is delayed.

Juan Formell junto a su esposa Diana y el conocido salsero boricua Gilberto Santa Rosa
Juan Formell junto a su esposa Diana y el conocido salsero boricua Gilberto Santa Rosa.

Playing a concert every day for more than two-and-a-half hours is really tough, especially for the singer who has to sing both the solos and the choruses. The chorus wears you down more than the solo because they can last up to ten minutes. However, women have a different range; what is more comfortable for a woman can be too high-pitched for a man.

The choruses of Van Van are distributed among the different voices: the highest-pitched voice is Mayito’s —the most important singer. He was getting really hurt with the choruses, but Yeni is very comfortable with them. That was the first reason.

The second was Team Cuba. When Jose Luis Cortes discovered Yeni and put her in his line-up, I said to myself, ‘That young girl can really sing.’ I knew what she could sing. When she first joined the orchestra, her presence was questioned by many people, and I would say, ‘Take it easy, let people have a good listen to her first.’

There have not been many female son singers in the history of Cuban music. Generally, they perform boleros and ballads, with some exceptions, such as Omara Portuondo, Elena Burke and others.

But there have not been as many female soneras with the same inspiration and ability as male soneros, because of the words used. It is easy for men to say, ‘Mulatona, you’re so sexy.’ For a woman, it’s more difficult to say that, she has to find another way to improvise. And I think Yeni does it well.

The other thing was replacing Pedrito Calvo, who, during his last period with the orchestra, more than a voice, was an icon and replacing that was not going to be easy. If I would have put in Lele alone, he would have been immediately compared to Pedrito and people would have completely thrashed him. Yeni was the one who took the beating instead.

I did it on purpose. I knew they would just focus on the woman and leave him alone. That was the strategy I used and it worked. Little by little, Yeni convinced the people and nobody ever criticized Lele. Although he does not have the same vocal abilities as Pedrito, he has grace and charisma.

Son is in danger

—How would you evaluate the current state of Cuban popular music?

—We aren’t really seeing a changing of the guard when it comes to Cuban popular music, something that would guarantee its future. It’s not discernible in any area. Some immigrate; others spend most of their time performing outside Cuba and lose their contact with the [Cuban] public.

There are many problems. One of them is that the musicians don’t receive salaries. In other words, the orchestra may be without work for X reasons and we’re not earning anything.

The law of supply and demand also comes into play. I ask for a certain amount of money and if you are willing to pay me, perfect. But if not, either I don’t work or I have to accept your conditions. I’ve heard of musicians who only get paid lunch. We’re in a very critical situation.

So what some people are doing is going to Cancún, Veracruz or Merida to perform for a while. This is bad for Cuban music because people are looking for long contracts abroad, not just for a few weeks. There have been people who have been abroad for almost two years. They come, renew their passports, and leave. One sees groups that have a good start and then disappear from the music scene. It’s not because they left the country, it’s because they work abroad to survive.

If they’re here, sometimes they can spend up to three months without performing. We have worked towards defending orchestras with talent to include them in the larger concerts with the first tier orchestras, which are indeed the ones that guarantee turnout.

Record producers, musicians, and singers are gathering together to form a commission of the Union of Cuban Artists and Writers (UNEAC) to draft a document with all these concerns.

We’ve explained that the musicians from second tier orchestras should have a salary, to guarantee they remain in the bands and generate new creations. If we keep up as we’re going, we’ll have a crisis similar to the one in the 1960s. People will only want to listen to foreign music and not ours.

—What has happened to the places where the popular Cuban bands frequently played?

—They’re practically all gone, although people demand them. The concert belongs to both the people who go to dance and the orchestra. This close contact is essential.

Now, there are the Capri and Macumba, which are always crowded. La Tropical is now used just for rock music. For me [La Tropical] is the Benny Moré Hall of popular music, so let’s use it for that. There are other places more suitable for people to listen to rock and rap. They have warped the true meaning of La Tropical.

There are also EGREM’s Casa de la Música. But the problem is that it’s pretty hard for people to come up with the 25 CUC to get in. You know what that amount of money represents to a Cuban. There are other places where small groups can play but they’re being used to present comedians and recorded music because it is cheaper.

It’s a dangerous situation, because before they know it, we will have lost many places. Young people do not have a place to go to dance. They go to the theater one day, but they also want other options. Many will go to the Malecón to drink rum, and that’s not healthy. They should have affordable places for the public.

Family, life and dreams

—Have you made incursions into other artistic expressions?

—No, though I like painting and writing. Once I was talking to Miguel Barnet, and he was telling me, ‘I can write a book, but I can’t write three-minute stories. You do that in a song.’ It’s true, but I would have liked to have written a book. Maybe I still have time now that I’m not playing with the orchestra every day.

—Are you married?

—Yes, with the mother of my youngest daughter, who’s a lot younger than me. We’ve been married for nearly 20 years, the longest marriage I’ve been in.

I see myself as a stable person. I’m not saying I’m a role model or anything like that, I’ve done horrible things, but you can’t hold regrets. Life takes you down different paths. If you manage to correct your wrongs on time, you will make it.

—How has work affected Formell as a husband and a father?

—I’m a complex father. A musician sometimes has to leave their family unattended and make them their second priority. That’s not good. I’ve had many problems, especially with my kids, with behaviour problems and misunderstandings.

One day, we worked it all out, although the final balance is negative because when the child needed me to be there, I wasn’t. Or I was, but doing something else. It takes its toll when you get older and realizes the mistakes you’ve made.

Luckily, in the end, all my children adore me and have forgiven my mistakes. The oldest, Juan Carlos, is 43. He plays the guitar and lives in New York. He’s been nominated twice for a Grammy. Samuel is 40 years old. The third one is Elizabeth, she’s 39 and works with me.

Then there’s Vanesa, who’s 30 and also sings. The youngest one is Paloma, who studies piano and is 18. I have three grandchildren. In short, I don’t think I’ve been a bad father, generally speaking, but it hasn’t been easy; I think this happens to almost all artists.

Thursday, 08 May 2014, 02:59 PM