By Don Macica.
Cuba lives large in the American imagination. Likewise, Cuba has been fascinated by its neighbor to the north. After the revolution, the U.S. government kept Cuban culture out of our view. On the island, though, antennas were up and pointed north. Juan Formell, founder of Los Van Van, was among those listening.
Los Van Van was born out of something of a mutiny when Formell, then the arranger of the popular charanga group Orquesta Revé, had a classic case of “artistic differences” with the orquesta’s namesake, Elio Revé. Formell had joined the already existing group in 1967 and immediately set about tinkering with the charanga formula, which at the time was dominated by the great Orquesta Aragon. Formell was as familiar with jazz and the Beatles as he was with Cuban son and began introducing rock into the mix. Even as Revé increased in popularity, the orquesta’s leader seemingly chafed at these changes, prompting Formell to leave just two years into his tenure. Several kindred spirits in Orquesta Revé followed suit, and in December 1969 Los Van Van was formed around this core.
The rest, as they say, is history. And what a history it is!
“The violinists, pianist and flutist all came with me,” recounts Juan Formell in a terrific interview with Cuban writer Leonardo Padura for his book Faces of Salsa. “At the outset I introduced the electric bass and the electric guitar… and instead of the timbal I used a complete drum kit, and later we enhanced things with synthesizer and trombones. In sum, I carried out a series of transformations that complemented the music mélange we were creating: rock, Afro-Cuban music, beat…” The style that they created was dubbed songo, and later it formed the roots of timba.
Formell goes on to say that in order to excite young audiences and get them to dance, he recognized that the Beatles and rock had forever changed the course of music. Being the first to incorporate those modern sounds into the charanga format likewise changed everything that followed in Cuba, and is what led historian and ethnomusicologist Ned Sublette, author of Cuba and its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo to say, “You can’t imagine Cuban music without Los Van Van, any more than you can imagine the world’s music without Cuba.”
In a contemporary context, think of bands like Novalima or Bomba Estéreo, both of whom recently visited Chicago. In each, they began with a base that is purely local to their home countries, but then amped things up with the latest in tools, technology and global trends. That is precisely what Los Van Van began doing over 45 years ago, and continues to do today.
And yet, for those first few decades they did this largely out of sight of the U.S. because of the embargo imposed on Cuba. Things began to thaw a bit in the 1980s as more U.S. musicians began to re-discover Cuba, but this opening was largely confined to jazz. I first heard of Los Van Van in the early 90s through a pair of compilation CDs, Sabroso: Havana Hits and another assembled by the Talking Heads’ David Byrne, Dancing with the Enemy. Shortly after that, the same Ned Sublette quoted above, then a producer for Afropop Worldwide, founded Qbadisc Records and began releasing CDs of Cuban music here, including one by Los Van Van. The flowering that followed Buena Vista Social Club helped make Cuban music fashionable in the late 90s, even if the throwback nostalgia of BVSC harkens back to an older style. Meanwhile, Los Van Van kept evolving and updating, winning a Grammy Award in 1999 for Llegó… Van Van (Van Van is Here). The group was earning the nickname the Rolling Stones of Cuban music, an odd reference when you consider Formell’s reverence for the Beatles, but perhaps appropriate because Los Van Van, like the Stones (but unlike the Beatles), are going strong after nearly 50 years, even if they disappeared from view after George Bush slammed the U.S.-Cuban door shut again in the wake of 9/11. In recent years, the door has swung open again and, lo and behold, Los Van Van is still here.
Los Van Van is a rare cultural phenomenon that broke through boundaries of nation, generation, politics, and genre. Juan Formell passed away last year at the age of 71, but he has left his orquesta in good hands. For the last 20 years, Los Van Van’s drummer has been the founder’s son, Samuel Formell, and he has taken over leadership of the group.
All of the above should be enough to convince you that missing Los Van Van this Sunday at Thalia Hall would be a serious mistake. If not, I’ll leave you with one more quote, this one from the Los Angeles Times:
“The controlled frenzy that is a Los Van Van concert hasn’t calmed down in more than 40 years.”
Los Van Van, Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport Street, Chicago. Sunday August 9, 8PM. Tickets at TicketWeb.
About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.