You can’t think of Juan Formell and not think of his band Los Van Van. They Cuban bassist set a standard with the band attributed with creating “Songo” and revolutionizing Cuban music.
I reflect on Los Van Van as we mourn the death of its founder Juan Formell. I had a chance to see and hear Formell up close when Los Van Van visited Puerto Rico. They offered a music clinic in the Puerto Rico Music Conservatory as part of their presentations around 1998.
A bass player, arranger, and song writer, Formell was always looking for ways innovate his music to stay relevant with the times.
What Made Juan Formell’s Los Van Van Special?
Innovative is the one word that best describes Juan Formell and his group. Since he became musical director of Elio Revé’s charanga band, Formell began looking for ways to make the typical charanga sound more relevant to a younger audience. Adding elements of American rock and pop to the charanga format, Juan Formell began a transformation that he called “Changui ’68”.
A year later Formell left Revé’s band to form his own, Los Van Van. The original band had much of the same format of the charanga. However, he added electric guitars and a drum set. Cesar “Pupy” Pedroso, was one of the original 1969 members at the piano. Pedroso had a great influence in the success of Los Van Van.
The Birth of “Songo”
Juan Formell along with Pupy Pedroso continued to experiment with the sound of the band. With the addition of Jose Luis “Changuito” Quintana in 1970, they would together revolutionize the sound of Cuban music! The new and vibrant rhythm of Songo was created out of the fusion charanga with rock and American pop. He topped that by adding a new rhythmic twists. The resulting Songo made the band internationally popular.
It would not be until a decade later, in 1980 that Juan Formell would add trombones to the band’s format. In doing this he formed a unique sound that had rhythm and musical depth. The albums that followed became one hit after another. Some of my favorites are “Anda, Ven y Muevete” (1984), “La Titimania” (1987), and “Songo” (1988).
The Songo rhythm introduced by Los Van Van had high energy, the most advance rhythmic patterns in Latin music. Formell used arrangements with unpredictable and continually changing mambos.
Singers with sing with flavor, heart, and can improvise!
My Favorite Album from Juan Formell y Los Van Van
Oh, there are so many great Van Van albums…33 albums altogether since 1969!!! But, my favorite is “Lo Ultimo en Vivo” (1994). For me, this album captured the Los Van Van at their best. The had the best of the older Van Van with the elements of the new Van Van.
Singers Pedro Calvo, Angel Boné, and Mayito Rivera (debuting with Los Van Van) made a great combination. One common denominator of all 3 singers is that they all are great improvisators and sing with great flavor. Mayito clearly has the most privileged voice.
Pedro Calvo brought all the element of the typical Van Van, with his big wing hat becoming the symbol of the band! Mayito Rivera brought in the new singing sound of Los Van Van, and since Pedro Calvo left the band shortly after this album, Mayito would remain the face and voice of the band!
The songs, arrangement, and musicality on “Lo Ultimo en Vivo” were just fantastic, even when it was an album recorded live with a DAT recorder, not the latest in technology even at that time.
Video of “La Sorpresa” with Mayito Rivera
The first Mayito Rivera hit with Los Van Van was “La Sorpresa”, a song that highlights the fantastic musicality of the band.
Juan Formell (1942-2014) RIP