If you ever came anywhere near salsa, as dancer or listener, or ever went to Cuba, you will have heard the music of Juan Formell, who died on Thursday 1 May.
He was the leader, composer and bass player for Los Van Van, the greatest Cuban band of the past fifty years and arguably the greatest Cuban band ever. The style of music he created with Los Van Van – a blend of rock and jazz creatively integrated with Afro-Cuban rhythms and structures over a base which is essentially son – was unmistakable and influenced every other artist who has worked in the mix of styles and sounds we now know as ‘salsa’.
A modest presence with short grey hair who combined a quiet, concentrated manner with a genial, welcoming smile, he was an unmistakable presence whenever the band played, and was largely responsible for both the wit and inventiveness of their songs, and the incredible precision of their playing. Los Van Van’s standard of musicianship – honed by the magnificent Cuban musical education freely available to all children with ability – was staggering to those used to the amateurishness of European pop musicians. Formell clearly ran a very tight ship, but he had a tremendous sense of humour – see for example the video below, directed by Kerry Ribchester of Key2Cuba, where he plays the role of a hapless tour guide, abandoned by his tourist charges who all go off to dance after loading him with their belongings. His work with the band was also profoundly based in the Afro-Cuban religion, Santería – the delightful video for Chapeando shows the band led through the jungle and the human ear by Eleggua, the boy-god who opens the way for us through life’s difficulties, and the lyrics also celebrate Yemayá, the bountiful sea-goddess who provides us with fish – necesitamos tu produccion, Mama as the song says. Chapeando is probably the best album produced by any Cuban band in the past half-century. I saw Los Van Van live several times, in the UK and also in Cuba (see Travels on the Dance Floor for an account of one of their concerts in Havana), and their performances were full of incredible energy and joy as well as musical richness and precision. It was hard for anyone used to European bands to understand how they could go on playing and singing (and dancing!) with such energy for two and a half or three hours.
I’m sure the band – recently directed by Juan’s son Samuel – will go on and be as good as ever. But Juan’s achievement remains huge, and above all joyous. He gave happiness to so many people and his recordings will go on doing so. As he said himself, “My life has been entirely dedicated to music, and only makes sense when people make it theirs and enjoy it.”