Los Van Van have reached the 21st century
BY RAFAEL LAM —Special for Granma International—
JUAN Formell, director of Los Van Van, gives us a recount of his band on the 38th anniversary of its debut on December 4, 1969. The most famous salsa group in the world has filled a rich career for years with creations and joy.
Formell, how was the start to Los Van Van’s career?
Los Van Van have reached the 21st centurySince 1967, I had been a member of the Revé group; I did it as a kind of transition, I wasn’t that interested in playing in a charanga. But I started to experiment and things turned out well, we had some hits. But by the summer of 1969 things weren’t working out; problems started and I decided to form my own band. The majority of Revé’s members came with me. The battle was on to get hold of instruments and making the new group official.
How did you solve those problems?
We had the support of Julio Bidopia, who is still working alongside us today, and who heads the Musical Clave Enterprise. He went off, getting hold of the instruments in Panama and Japan. For the debut show, we asked for some audio equipment from the Los Dada group, which was really popular at the time.
How was Los Van’s debut?
It took place on a very significant day, December 4, 1969, on Rampa St. It was fantastic. The press talked about a "new kind of music", a renovation of charanga.
What did this renovation consist of?
We used rock drums in the charanga, electric bass, and organ. We had arrangements that had a touch of pop, modern, and a bit of Yoruba. The rhythmic structure changed, plus the tone and concept; it was a total revolution.
Let’s talk about some of the members from those days…
Of the musicians, you have to always bear in mind César Pedroso, who was able to understand my technical changes. José Luis Quintana (Changuito) carried the weight of the rhythm base, he’s a star of Cuban and world percussion. The vocals were also decisive: the first lead was Lele (Miguel Angel Rasalp), who was a popularity phenomenon. He had a rock-ish swing, mixed it with son and, in the second stage, with rumba. He’s a born rumbero. He was followed by the voices of Armandito Cuervo, a son singer from Havana; Lázaro Morúa who created songo with a touch of gospel and jazz. Pedrito Calvo, another hugely popular artist. Israel Sardiñas gave a new boost to Los Van Van. Mario Luis Valdés replaced Sardiñas and filled a vacuum at that time. Angelito Bonne, who sang the hit song "Azucar". Mayito Rivera, an excellent rumbero. Robertón a timbale player who is unequalled. Jenny Valdés, the only female singer in the group.
There were misunderstandings when Los Van Van started…
Many people opened fire: critics, journalists, certain people who always show up as detractors of dance music, always a negative view from certain slack people.
Did you think that you would last 38 years?
I never thought we would get this far. It was quite simply our goal to make music for us to enjoy and for the people to enjoy. We worked for dancers, for the joy of Cuba; and we were ahead of our time. We went on a world tour; we stopped where we had to, in the skyscrapers and theaters of New York to demonstrate that Cuban music is immortal, indisputable. We won at the Grammys in the Salsa category in 1999 with our album Llegó Van Van. You start off doing what you have to do and as time passes, you realize that you’re writing part of the musical history of your country.
How have you been able to keep up with the times?
Times change very quickly in music; staying behind is the easiest thing in the world. If you don’t renew yourself, you die, and if you change the concept, you also die. You have to change the tones, but never the concept, the essential objective. We maintain the rhythmic base but the instruments can change, the vocals, the styles, the tones. But you always have to have an identifiable base. On the contrary, if you’re a weather vane that goes where the wind takes you, then that’s musical opportunism.
You had a reshuffle…
At a specific moment, I changed the lineup, I renovated it. My son joined with new ideas and plans. Boris Luna on keyboards. Violinists with young blood. Vocals with more "swing"; Mayito is very young, a rumbero and expert on musical percussion. Robertón has an amazing voice. Jenny provides the feminine touch. At certain times, my son takes over the musical direction and I feel renewed and go to almost all the shows. On the bass, I’ve got a youngster called Roberto Carlos and I sing and encourage the band. As you can see, there is both youth and experience.
Los Van Van’s latest album?
It’s called Arrasando and it’s got all the contemporary sound and strength of Los Van Van.
What’s the most important thing for Juan Formell?
I was always a dancer; that’s the essence and the principal objective. Without that, we wouldn’t exist. When I started out, I never thought that we would get so far and for so long. It’s the public who have brought us this far.
Will Van Van be around for a while?
As Revé used to say, hasta que ñangue (till who knows when).