Juan Carlos Formell Marches to a Different Latin Rhythm


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His band has congas and yet his music sounds much mellower than the stereotypical hot and loud danceable Latin music. A mix of trova, son, feeling, and jazz, the music of Juan Carlos Formell is not the typical danceable music, particularly the one his father’s band plays.

Juan Carlos Formell Musical Heritage

Grammy nominee Juan Carlos Formell comes from a known Cuban musical family. His father, Juan Formell, is the bandleader of the legendary Cuban dance band “Los Van Van”, but that’s where the resemblance starts and ends, as Juan Carlos’ music is on a completely opposite spectrum from that of his father’s.

Actually, his musical heritage comes more from his paternal grandfather, who was a composer, conductor, and arranger; and who directed the police band and conducted the Havana Philharmonic. Juan Carlos grew up with his grandparents and inherited his grandfather’s love for music. His mother was a signer, and he got the love for a slow, bolero-type of music called “feeling”, popularized in the 1940s and 1950s, and which highlighted guitars and vocals.

In a previous interview, Juan Carlos Formell talked about his sophisticated guitar-playing style: “I always see the guitar as a complete orchestra. Perhaps that comes from my grandfather, who was an orchestra conductor. When I first learned to play guitar, my reference was two styles: the bolero and feeling genres, which used sophisticated, dissonant harmonies, and the rhythmic guitar style of the tres used in typical Cuban music. I took it all in, and by the time I was 11, I had developed my own style.”

Here’s one of the songs in Johnny’s Dream Club

Johnny’s Dream Club: Magical Realism of Music

The music of Juan Carlos Formell is hard to classify, as it tends to occur with highly creative and innovative artists. His 1st CD, “Songs from a Little Blue House” received a Grammy nomination. His latest CD, “Johnny’s Dream Club: Havana-NY-New Orleans”, his 4th album, showcases his “Trova”-like music, which incorporates elements of jazz with Cuban music roots. Formell’s music has been described as “magical realism”, sort of the equivalent of what Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez does in his novels.

Juan Carlos Formell album "Johnny's Dream Club"
Juan Carlos Formell’s “Johnny’s Dream Club”

Johnny’s Dream Club was an actual real place in the outskirts of Havana. It was a place outside the beaten path of the other glorious clubs in Havana that allowed and encouraged musical experimentation. It’s in that sense that Juan Carlos Formell rightly named his album after this old club.

This musical uniqueness represented a challenge at the time to book work, as Juan Carlos explained in a previous interview:
“The first format… which I began in 1994, was a septet in which I played bass as the lead instrument and had a piano.

Later, when I began to write the songs that became [the album] Songs from a Little Blue House, my wife persuaded me to switch to guitar. She said that we could always hire a bass player, but only I could play the songs on the guitar. We dropped the piano and used guitar as the lead instrument. That was in 1996.

It was a huge challenge because I wasn’t just changing instruments, I was changing modalities — in the U.S., the perception was that Latin music, and especially Hispanic Caribbean music, was loud, upbeat and “hot”. But my music was cool. It was hard to find acceptance. We lost a lot of work — all the Latin music places were saying “Where’s the piano?… I had no idea how limited the world of Latin music was — of course, it’s a subculture here.

Also, by the time I arrived, salsa as a movement had effectively died. New York was still defined by the mambo era of the 1950s. It was unthinkable to play Latin music without a piano and a horn section. And contemporary U.S. commercial Latin music was ruled by a narrow formula.”

Juan Carlos’s lyrics are very poetic and his music reflects that mood with smooth harmonies that highlight Formell’s 12-string guitar playing and his bandmates’ creative playing.

Musicians in Johnny’s Dream Club

One of those bandmates is Salsa music great Lewis Kahn, who plays the trombone and violin. You can see Lewis right behind Juan Carlos in the video above. Lewis has been a steady part of Juan Carlos’ band.

Mr. Kahn has played with Latin music greats such as Tito Puente, Larry Harlow, Eddie Palmieri, and Willie Colon, besides being part of the Fania All-Stars. Lewis Kahn adds a great mystique to Juan Carlos’s music with his combination of a soft trombone with a melodic violin. You can read more about Lewis Kahn on the blog about my interview with him HERE.

The rest of the Quintet is formed by Robert Rodriguez (piano), Ricky Rodriguez (bass), and Jorge Leyva (percussion).

This is a very unique album that will make a good addition to your Latin music collection.

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  1. Name (required) says

    Excellent review, Hector!


  2. Name (required) says

    Great! A great musician from tip to top!!!!

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