A Cuban friend once referred to Juan Formell as being more important for Cubans than Fidel Castro. This is probably because Formell, as the founder, leader, and composer of Los Van Van, has kept Cubans dancing for the past 30 years. And dance and music are more important than politics. But for Cuban musicians, politics sometimes gets in their way.
Last September and October, Van Van went on an extensive US tour to promote their new album Llego… Van Van, Van Van Is Here. They played in Seattle, Sacramento, even in Lawrence, Kansas. I saw them at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York where I heard that their Miami show was being canceled because Cuban exiles had complained that a band from Cuba would be allowed to play. The city’s Cuban-American mayor Joe Carollo called them “the official Communist band of Fidel Castro.”
The ACLU and the band’s label threatened legal action before the city finally relented.
Los Van Van played their aggressive, joyous, modern Cuban rhythms to those who were not intimidated by the threats. To enter the Miami arena, concert goers had to walk by police in riot gear and protesters who threw eggs, bottles, and rocks. Many of them wore masks so as not to be identified. Friends who attended told me that they had never seen Cubans dance with such intensity.
I spoke to Juan Formell by telephone a few weeks after the Miami concert. He was already back in Havana, getting ready to play at La Tropical.
Silvana Paternostro The first time I went to Cuba was in ‘95, I think, and what impressed me the most was that I was getting to know the country not through newspapers or the radio—which as a journalist is how I usually approach a country I’m visiting for the first time—but that I was learning about life in Cuba by listening to Cuban music, especially what’s now called timba. Musicians in Cuba seem to play the roles of chroniclers and sociologists, even heart doctors. Tell me about this process.
Juan Formell Well, it is not new, a certain type of Cuban musician has always done this. It is all old tradition that started in the ‘20s, with people like Mighel Matamoros; afterwards it was kept up by Piñeiro. Beny Moré chronicled geography. Ñico Saquito was also a chronicler, he was more like us, a chronicler of everyday life. That’s what we’re doing now. Those songs were relating to something about life at that time, a reference that you would ordinarily have to look up in a book, but by listening to the songs of Matamoros or Ñico Saquito you get a sense of what life was like then.
SP Give me an example of a Metamoros song you remember with that kind of reference.
JF The Matamoros song “Las Frutas de Caney,” or “Mamá yo quiero saber de donde son los cantantes, si son de La Habana, si son de la loma”—Mama, I want to know where the singers are from, if they’re from Havana or from the sticks.
SP Of course, it’s so well known that it’s almost become an anthem. What do you think it’s about?
JF That’s kind of like asking where son came from.
SP Or a history of son within the song.
JF Yes, sort of. Matamoros came from Oriente, so when he sings La Habana, tierra soberana, Havana, sovereign land, he is talking about the difference between being from Havana which historically has always been the capital—no?—and the people from Oriente, from the east of the inland have a different social status. In the song "la mujer de Antonio cuando va al mercado camina así, cuando va a la plaza camina así" he is talking about how flirtatious and coqueta Cuban women are.
SP Something else I’ve always noticed is that the lyrics of many of your songs enter the street language. It’s the question of which comes first, the chicken or the egg? What comes first? Do you take things from the popular language that already exist, or do you say it first and then it enters the common argot?
JF Either way, there’s no rule. Many times I’ve taken a phrase that already exists. You know what is interesting about Cubans is that we have this gift to condense a very big thing into a small phrase of two or three words. And our songs use those two or three words. For example: y que se sepa, let it be known, and you really are not sure what it is that is known. It’s like a reaffirmation when someone tells you, I was there, I witnessed this, and y que se sepa. So people start saying that all the time and from that I came up with “eso que anda”—what goes around. Eso que anda can be a disease or a trend or an addiction or a song or whatever. So, yes, Cubans condense with little phrases and I take them and build my songs from them. Other times, it’s the other way around. You give people a phrase like, "Yo soy normal natural y un poquito acelerado"—I’m normal, natural, and move a little fast.
SP Yes, I love that
JF Well, that one is mine.
SP And where does it come from? I hear it as part of Cuban conversation now.
JF I know. I made it up. There was a similar saying going around at the time: “vengo fresco, suave y bajito de sal”—I’m coming mellow, laid-back, smooth and with a little salt.
SP Yes. (laughter).
JF There are things suggested by that saying, and then I came up with my own version.
SP It’s an old tradition, playing with words like that. Cabrera Infante does it all the time. It seems especially Cuban. It’s an essential part of la cubanidad.
JF It is. And there are many phrases that come from a Cuban way of talking, from that cubanidad. Cubans don’t beat around the bush, they say things right out or invent them on the spot, and afterwards you swear you have no idea where it came from. A phrase just appears. Sometimes it’s us making them up in our songs, but sometimes it just comes out of the blue and it starts becoming a saying. Like dame datos, give me some facts. Cubans are always saying "dame datos," give me some information. I’ve been wanting for a long time to make a song using dame datos.
SP Changing the subject. There’s the phenomenon of Cuba’s musicality. I’ve heard expressions in Cuba like, if you throw a stone in Cuba you’ll hit a musician. If you pick up a rock you’ll find musicians underneath. It’s the only place in the world where parents want their children to grow up to be musicians. Where does the musicality come from?
JF I think that it has to do with our geographical position. Being in the Caribbean basin where, like in some parts of North America, black people have mixed into the different cultures, the Spanish and the American.
SP It is like what you say in your song, “Llegue de Carabalí”—I come from Carabalí…
JF Yes. “Vengo de Nigeria, de Yoruba, Yara”…“I come from Nigeria, from Yoruba, Yara.” These are different African religions or sects. “Llegue be Carabalí, mis tierras son Angola, Mozambique” meaning that we have a mixture of so many different African countries from which the slaves were brought. What’s been created is not the culture from each country so much as a big mixture. The Africans had a big influence on Cuba. But not only Africans, Cuba is geographically in the middle of the Caribbean so it was the center of Spanish dominion from the 16th into the 19th century. The Spaniards had to stop in Cuba—especially in the ports, Havana and Santiago be Cuba—on their way to send things to Europe: gold, coffee, tobacco. So the French, Spanish, English, Swiss—practically all the races and nationalities of the world—passed through, all these people together. The music was influenced by that. Then, in Oriente, the east of the island, after the Haitian Revolution, there was an exodus of the French who brought their slaves from Haiti. So a lot of cultural influence and new ideas came from Haiti. In the interior of Cuba there were a lot of Spaniards called canarios from the Canary Islands, who also brought music. That really impacted our musica campesina, the music of the Cuban countryside, the son cubano and the son montuno. To mix their music, which has a very open tempo, offered a lot of possibility and created many, many different genres. All of this makes Cuba a musical island. Jazz also had an influence. We have New Orleans very nearby. Many Cubans went to the United States, to New York, and got involved in jazz and practically created Latin jazz. All these things seem to have influenced and made Cuba’s musicality.
SP And when do you think Cuban music started to export itself, to influence musicians who were not from Cuba?
JF Its importance began at the turn of the century. There was a Cuban composer whose songs got picked up all over the world, called Ernesto Lecuona. He was very influential in Cuban lyrical music. His work became part of the repertory of great singers of the time—famous tenors in Europe, in the United States, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Then there was Matamoros. Matamoros went to the United States in the ’20s and ’30s, he even lived in New York. He arrived with Son de la Loma and Frutas del Caney. In the ’40s it was almost obligatory to include a Cuban conga or a Cuban rumba in Hollywood movies. A Cuban singer named Miguelito Valdés was also important. He appeared in many American musical films in the ’40s and really influenced American music. He made Cuban music that became known throughout the world.
SP What kinds of music were picked up?
JF Mainly the conga and then, later, the rumba.
SP But what kinds of musicians picked it up here in the United States?
JF Almost all the important jazz bands, like Dizzy Gillespie. Jazz musicians worked with people like Mario Bauza, Machito, Chano Pozo, and that’s where Latin jazz came from.
SP When did the Cuban influence in rock music start?
JF With Santana, in “Oye como va!” It’s the same idea, but the rock influence was more in the ’80s; Stevie Wonder has songs that sound like a son played by a Cuban cha-cha-cha orquesta.
SP In the last five or six years there has been an international resurgence of Cuban music, which has become very fashionable. In New York, for example, there are restaurants that only play Cuban music although in Cuba people are listening to timba.
JF What people in Cuba are not listening to is precisely the older music.
SP Here it’s heard as the only Cuban, music, but when I go to Cuba, I don’t hear traditional Cuban music as much.
JF Yes, you might hear it on one or two radio stations but it’s not the music young people in Cuba listen to, or dance to. It’s not the music that gets the big crowds. It’s a political thing—although you may not believe it—recognizing that new Cuban music is just as good, it’s in the same class as the music from the ‘50s. In my opinion it is. That’s one of the reasons why our music is heard less there. Also, all this was handled by a very smart record producer who produced great material with very high-quality technical support. The music that came out is of incredible quality, it always has been. The producers were then able to introduce it and make it popular in the United States.
SP And timba, on the other hand, which is the music of Cuba today is less known, To me it is so vital, so modern, so aggressive and full of joy at the same time. One can say you are the father of timba. How did it start?
JF Los Van Van started it in ’69; Irakere in ’73 and then in ’78 Adalberto Alvarez and NG La Banda in 1980. That was the beginning of what we have today decided to call timba.
SP Where does the name down from? I’m Colombian and timba in my country means dark skin.
JF It means different things in different places. In some places it means juego, a game. Here in the old days, timba was a type of bread, bread with guava jelly, pan con timba.
SP I love that.
JF Timba for a Cuban can also mean playing, timbiar. Or timbiar can mean to party, rumbea, or to jam, to play music. There was a time here when a lot of the professors in the national art schools came from socialist countries with a very smart but very strict academic approach. They played and taught classical repertory. So when the students tried to play Cuban music, they would be admonished and even punished. They’d lose weekend privileges because this music was practically prohibited. It became a clandestine activity. This ended years ago, but it was a weird phase and during that time the kids had to do everything hidden in their dorm rooms. They would say: “Tonight there’s a timba in room number nine.” Or “We’re going to have a timba tonight. We’re going to timbiar.”
SP Which is a classic situation. It’s what happened with the rumba and the guaguancó —the música de cajones —during the period of slavery when they were not allowed to play African rhythms, right?
JF That’s right. This was more like those where the school’s rules, they didn’t realize that this music really calls for technique—the professors weren’t Cubans. They were good professors of violin or piano, for example, but they were from Bulgaria and from Hungary. They had nothing to do with our music. These professors were annoyed that the students could play music they weren’t teaching. Once the kids left school they were prepared technically and they could play anything they wanted. While they were in school, they had to find a way to get together and jam, to play for fun. And they started calling this timba. We started incorporating what they were doing with what Van Van and other groups had began in the ’70s. In the ’80s and ’90s there was an explosion of orquestas and musicians that came out of these schools and we would all get together and play and fuse our sounds. We decided amongst ourselves that our music was most like those timbas.
SP When you say that timba is played differently, what do you mean?
JF It is all part of the phenomenon of how it was created. It looks different; it sounds different. Our music is a lot more aggressive than say, salsa.
JF We owe its aggressiveness and dynamic to the dancers, who, after all, demand it from you. As musicians we have to recognize what it is the dancer needs. From there, it all has to do with the dancer and the musician. See, that’s why there’s a difference. We give the dancers what they need.
SP How do you notice when the dancers are shifting, that they need more?
JF It’s instinctive to a musician. I can feel that the dancers want me to play a little faster, a little harder, a little softer. You feel it.
SP So is it like the dancers were needing a music for their new dance, for the tembleque?
JF Yes, slowly, step by step, you and the dancer search for it until you understand what satisfies the dancer.
SP Would you say that the tembleque is the dance of post-Soviet Cuba, of the Cuba of the Special Period?
JF Yes, yes, they came at about the same time.
SP And that it has a lot to do with the opening of Cuba, the end of Soviet support, the arrival of the dollar and of tourism. All of these factors created changes in the music and in the way women were dancing.
JF I think so. It has to do with all that. We had a place called the Palacio de la Salsa, which was the center of it all.
SP Yes. I was there many times. I heard you playing there. But I understand they no longer have timba at Palacio.
JF Yes. They changed it. Now they have cabaret shows. But for almost five years it played an important role. The best orquestas were there because in my opinion we are the best in the world. This music can’t be matched anywhere in the world if we’re talking about salsa or however you want to call it.
SP I agree. I love to watch the dancing. Cuban dancers are so good. It’s very difficult to do the tembleque. I’ve tried. I think you need to be Cuban to get it. (laughter).
JF Don’t think it’s so hard, because we’ve seen it done. We go more to Europe than to the United States. We’ve seen it in Finland, in Denmark, and, just so you know, there are people in those places who dance as well as Cubans. In Turin, Italy there’s a club called Van Van en Latino where you have 2,000 people dancing casino style and doing the tembleque. And they’re Italian Italians and Danish Danes and Finnish Finns, not a single solitary black person, and it’s weird, but they dance it perfectly. And they also come to Cuba often and are always looking, looking, looking for people to do it with. Now we’re comfortable in any of those places because the public already knows the songs, the moves—and I’m talking about the timba. Not the old-style music.
SP How do you define timba musically? Is it a mix of sounds like hip hop?
JF There’s a little jazz, it has a little Latin, a little pop rock, too. And then there is Cuban music at the base of it all. Of course, not everyone plays timba the same way. The common denominator is the son cubano and the son montuno which is stronger, but there are people who tone it down and others who mix it with conga or with son. We mix it with the songo —which is a genre that Van Van created. It depends who is doing it. But there is a base of son with the influence of Latin jazz and rap, a lot of influence from rap, not hip hop, but rap.
SP Did you pick up these influences from your trips abroad?
JF No, from here in Cuba itself. People here are informed because if you have an FM radio you can pick up stations from everywhere in the United States and Canada, from the Dominican Republic. So sometimes we’ve been influenced by merengue, or maybe by cumbia or Puerto Rican bomba. Same with television and also the attention younger Cubans give to keeping up with what’s going on elsewhere—they follow the hit parades. There are very few people here who have the chance to travel with any frequency but they have a radio at home, and sometimes US television comes in spontaneously even without an antenna and it brings a lot with it. In Cuba, although albums aren’t sold as much as they are elsewhere, our geographic position is still an advantage.
SP I’ve always noticed how, when I’ve been in concerts at the Tropical or in the Palacio, everyone knows all the words to your songs, even though they don’t even have your cassettes. Another phenomenon that is different here than in Cuba, people here like to go to hear songs they already know, the old songs. In Cuba people like to hear the new stuff.
JF Sometimes they like to hear the old songs, too, because they haven’t heard them in a long time. And yes, one person has a tape and it gets passed around and copied many times. But as a market, it’s no good that people pirate from each other and never buy the album. It’s bad for us.
SP How do Los Van Van do it, keep on being the number one dance band for 30 years? What’s the secret of Juan Formell?
JF My secret is that I’ve never forgotten about the dancers. It really is the dancers who dictate the formula you have to follow both in the rhythm and in the lyrics of the songs. They’re the reason for the song and you adapt to them. You pay attention to what they are doing and at the end you get people to feel like they’re part of the song, that they are the characters in the song. Our music comes from common things and common facts of life so every one can relate to them and they feel like characters in a play because after all that’s what this really is about—a great piece of theater. But it’s also important to remember the rhythm and the beat. Keep up with but don’t change the dancers’ steps. Give them something fun to dance to. That’s why, year after year, we have three or four songs that become hits and that keeps us on top.
SP For an orquesta it seems out of the ordinary for the group leader to play the bass. How do you see this?
JF I think the bass is the most important thing, although I really compose and write music on the piano and the guitar. I’ve realized that the bass is like the spinal cord. If it goes, you can’t walk at all; you can’t move around. It’s the center of the story. Remember that in all musical cultures you can’t do without it. You make a jazz trio; it’s bass, piano, and drums. If you want, it can be guitar, violin, and bass. The bass is the center of all musical cultures in the world. Even more so in Cuban music. The Cubans dance to the bass. It’s the tumbao that the bass gives that orients people, let’s them know how to dance. You know, in public, I can play the piano or guitar. But with the bass I really carry the whole group. I feel like the owner of the orquesta (laughter).
SP Let’s talk a little about the creation of Los Van Van. I’m sure you’ve been asked a lot about the name Los Van Van.
JF Whenever I’ve told the story to a journalist—I think this is the millionth time that I’ve told it—they interpret it badly or manipulate it for, I don’t know, narrative reasons or something.
SP (laughter). Let’s hear it one more time.
JF Really this is the story I tell about our name. In Cuba in the late ‘60s, at the time of the 1969 sugar harvest, the government was trying to produce 10 million tons of sugar and it came up with a slogan: “Los diez millones de que van… van”—The 10 million must go… go. Our name had nothing to do with that. It was just a coincidence, a phrase that was fashionable then. Nothing more. And there’s nothing else, no other story. Van van in Spanish means it will happen, it will go. It was very hard at that time to get the musicians we wanted to get. One lived in Pinar del Rio. Another one was in another orquesta… I don’t know. Each time we would spend a week, two weeks, waiting for a musician, so not to get discouraged, we would always say,"va, esto va, y de que van van!" That’s how we ended up being Los Van Van. But every time I tell the story it ends up being as if Fidel Castro made us call ourselves that. And that is a very ugly story because I don’t even know Fidel Castro personally and I don’t know if he likes my orquesta and on the contrary, it took a lot of work to get started. No one made me do anything. In the beginning, they wouldn’t approve us because here in Cuba—I don’t know if it still exists, but—you had to have a government-approved payroll to put together an orquesta. If you didn’t have that permit for an orquesta you couldn’t put it together. I didn’t, so they wouldn’t let me do anything. No one in the government made us do it—as people keep saying. All these stories have been manipulated in different ways and the story that gets told is often the opposite of what really happened. Every time I hear the story told backwards I just say to myself that people are deaf.
SP At the time you created the band, “de que van van” was a popular saying, but it also came from a political slogan.
JF Yes. Yes. It was very popular. Everyone used it. Imagine naming your band at the same time that a political campaign is also using those words.
SP But do you think as the time there was an advantage to calling yourselves Los Van Van?
JF No, none. As I was telling you, it was kind of strange when people started asking me about the name because I just said, “Let’s call ourselves Los Van Van,” and that was the general consensus. We became Los Van Van. And anyway we got the approval of the band after the harvest. Our debut was in December 1969 and the harvest ended in May 1970—we were playing without being approved, our official approval only came in September or October of 1970.
SP And the name really has entered into common Cuban slang because now, to say something is really good, people say, “it’s a van van.”
JF Yes, that’s right. And we won that because of our work as a group. I always like to recall my own experience. You know, the truth is that the first thing I ever wanted to do in life was to sing but I never was able to sing—I didn’t have the conditions.
SP Where are you from, Juan?
JF I was born here in Havana, but my parents are from Oriente. Even as a kid I wanted to be a singer; I wanted to do the kid thing and change my name to Johnny Arles or Harry. In the end my name is Juan; it’s one of the most common names. It turned out that it was the best name. You can make up a name but not an artist. Los Van Van could have been called Chu Chu or whatever. The name isn’t important. It’s the artist.
JF Hold on a minute, I’m tired.
SP Here’s the last question: If you’re always traveling around the world, do you think you lose the flavor of the street and of what’s going on, even though you’re the number one chronicler or the number one band in Cuba?
JF First of all, we play here every time we get the chance. We just got back from our US tour but we’re ready to play here—this weekend we’re going to be at La Tropical. I never miss a chance to play in Cuba. Also, as soon as I get back from being abroad I immediately hit the street, I’ll always go see a friend or have a drink. To live like normal people. Of course, when I arrive people want to come over, congratulate me, say hello, invite me for a drink. But I am involved in daily life. I’m always finding out what’s going on, what people are talking about. I get updated on the new slang.
SP And what’s happening now? Dáme datos?
JF (laughter) Dáme datos. There’s not really anything going on. Saturday we’re playing at the Tropical. People are really interested in the new album and are listening to the new songs. But right now, although you may not believe me, everyone is talking about the World Series. Everyone is calling everyone up—especially those who have radios and TV antennas—to find out about Yankee-Atlanta games and about the scores. I’m getting ready to watch the last one today. I have friends coming over to watch the game but it is also an excuse to get together with friends and have some drinks.
SP Who are you rooting for?
JF The Yankees.