Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

JUAN FORMELL: A LIFE DEDICATED TO MUSIC

 

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.”

REAL CUBAN SALSA WITH KERRY RIBCHESTER

When I first went to Cuba and took private dance lessons in Havana, I thought I knew something about salsa. So I was amazed when the teacher totally disregarded what I thought I knew, and simply started showing me how to move my own body. As I wrote in Travels on the Dance Floor,

 ’We work for two hours, and at the end of it I haven’t actually taken a dance step. Instead I’ve started to develop a new sense of my own body, a new kind of internal map…. Gradually it started to come. My centre of gravity changes. I begin to find that it’s possible to loosen up and let the different parts of the body flow, or float, to the music almost independently. I realise I’ve had a habit of holding my body tightly together, as if afraid the bits of me would somehow come apart if I didn’t keep them together in one tense mass.’ http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0233002987?tag=grelinpoewrit-21&camp=1406&creative=6394&linkCode=as1&creativeASIN=0233002987&adid=1XFFFVTR08ZQK9V2VTFT&&ref-refURL=http%3A%2F%2Fgrevel.co.uk%2F

In the UK, salsa is too often taught as if it’s a matter of footwork and moves – arms and legs.  What I learned in Cuba is that the movement inside the body is far more important than the movement outside it. Once you’re dancing from your heart, your kidneys, your hips, the soles of your feet, and the earth, then the ‘moves’ can be added. But with just the moves, you’re not dancing Cuban salsa, your’re just prancing about.

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It’s hard to find that kind of teaching outside Cuba. One of the few who really does teach it is Kerry Ribchester, and it was great to have her back in Manchester this past week taking some workshops in all the things that go together to make a really great dance experience: body movement, attitude, really feeling and using the music, and relating in a warm and living way to your partner – the most important person in the world for the five minutes of that particular dance.

Kerry has huge experience of dance, having danced professionally in Brazil, coached Madonna and Kylie in onstage movement and – most importantly – visited Cuba to work with Cuban dancers several times a year for the past fifteen years. She has produced award-winning music videos in Cuba, and she communicates a depth of knowledge about dance I haven’t seen anywhere else, and she makes it really fun. Amanda and I never miss a chance to go to one of her workshops.

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We took her class with Solar Salsa at the Spread Eagle in Chorlton on Wednesday, and Amanda was also able to go to Kerry’s Saturday workshop at Sunshine Studios where they worked on the four ‘layers’ that make up the rich ‘cake’ of salsa: the Orisha dances of the Afro-Cuban gods; the Rumba (the competitive Afro-Cuban street dance which is all about attitude and maleness and femaleness); the Son – elegant social dance of the 1940s and 50s – and salsa itself, the spicy sauce that mixes them all.

Kerry’s workshops are highly recommended:

She also heads Key2Cuba, http://www.key2cuba.com/kerry.html which provides the best and most authentic Cuba trips for people who want to sample the culture and meet the people as well as enjoy the dancing. When I go to Cuba alone I usually do it independently because I’m good at handling the many hassles you always have to go through contending with that complex culture; but Amanda and I have been twice with Key2Cuba – most recently in March 2013 – and I recommend the trips strongly. No other dance tours have anything like the level of authenticity and local contact that you get with Key2Cuba.

 

Cuba is changing fast and if you’ve dreamed of going there, you should do it soon. And if you want to go with a group, Key2Cuba is the one to check out. http://www.key2cuba.com/kerry.html

Poetry – Song of the Cosmos and of Nicaragua!

Splendid Granada, the Festival's setting

Splendid Granada, the Festival’s setting

I’m just home from what must be the world’s most magnificent and delightful poetry festival. It’s the International Poetry Festival of Granada, held each year in Nicaragua’s most historic and beautiful city, and this time I was lucky enough to be invited. I knew it would be exciting but I truly had no conception of what it would really be like.

Nicaraguans have a genuine and universal love of poetry, and the week was packed with events ranging from the open mics which ran for hours every day with audiences consistently around 50 or 60 people listening intently to local poets, to the enormous evening readings where poets from more than 60 countries read their work (with Spanish translations) to audiences that filled the city’s main plaza and must have numbered thousands.
And as if the readings weren’t enough, on Tuesday 19th (as every year) there was the city’s Poetry Carnival – a vast colourful procession of bands, dancers, poets and everyone else, led by an elaborate horesdrawn funeral carriage, carrying the coffin of Arrogance and Insensitivity! And, of course, the parade stopped at every street corner through the city for short readings by countless poets.

Highlights of the Festival were splendid readings by Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal: a priest, Liberation Theologian, love poet, champion of indigenous cultures and hero of the campaign to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship, he was a charming and modest figure in loose blue trousers and white smock, his bushy white hair escaping from under a black beret. He read his famous ‘Oracion para Marilyn Monroe’ (‘Prayer for Marilyn Monroe’), and his touching and profound poem about the song of the cicadas which emerge from their 17-year sojourn underground only to sing and die: ‘En Pascua resuscitan las cigarras’ (‘At Easter the cicadas come back to life’) and other poems which are nationally known in Nicaragua but a marvellous new discovery for me.

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With Ernesto Cardenal at the book fair

There were also overwhelming performances (see video below) by Raul Zurita, who has written a kind of modern Divine Comedy on the recent traumatic history of Chile; and a characteristically delightful, intense and picturesque reading by Gioconda Belli, again a heroine of the Sandinista revolution – whose devotion to the arts and education as well as to democracy is the foundation of this amazing event – a festival to which richer countries would never dream of giving such resources but which this small country gladly offers to the world.


Just listent to Raul Zurita’s poetry as music if you don’t know Spanish, and share his extraordinary lament for the sufferings of his country under Pinochet’s dictatorship, in which he was arrested, tortured and exiled.

The Friday night reading, when with a succession of other poets I suddenly found myself up in the lights on the platform, reading into the beautifully-tuned sound system and gazing over a sea of faces stretching into the warm distance of the beautiful colonial Plaza, felt like flying. There was a magic in the moonlight, the vast, warm, appreciative audience, the sense of speaking – almost singing – the poems, English and Spanish, into this beautiful living space. Maybe that’s what it’s like to play a rock festival.

I was delighted to meet Gerry Cambridge, Scottish poet and editor of The Dark Horse magazine, for the first time, and also the fine New Zealand poet and publisher Roger Hickin. The three of us spent a good deal of time together, and also with the Taiwanese poet Yang Ze and the Icelandic poet Gerdur Kristny… I could go on, because it was the most wonderful opportunity to make friends and hear the most diverse poetries from all over the world. And as a bonus my old friend Ken McCarthy (www.kenmccarthy.com) came over from Guatemala for a couple of days to hang out, browse the bookshops, hear the music, marvel at the Carnival and enjoy the poems.

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Roger Hickin, New Zealand poet and publisher

Other poets whose work I loved included Gemino Abad (Phillippines), Margaret Randall and Jerome Rothenberg (both USA), Peter Boyle (Australia)… I could go on. And then there was the food. And the wonderful Phillips Montalban reggae band one night. And the great Mexican salsa orchestra another night. And the trip through the islands on Lake Cocibolco. And the tropical heat, and the scarlet and purple bougainvillea flowers, and the misty volcano in the background, and the Toña beer, and the Flor de la Caña rum. And the magnificent kindness, hospitality and efficiency of our hosts.

Granada Cathedral

Granada Cathedral

Shuffling off the plane at Manchester Airport this morning at 8.30 it was England that seemed, for a moment, like a dream. It’s not often one gets the chance to experience so intensely. Thank you Nicaragua, thank you Granada. In the slogan of the Festival, ‘Poetry is the Song of the Cosmos’; and it really did feel true.

I must also say a big Thank You to the Arts Council of Great Britain, which generously paid my fare and expenses to attend the Festival. I’m very grateful for this support.
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In Granada they are already starting to plan for next year’s Festival. If you have any taste for poetry, February would be a good time to visit Granada and see for yourself. The Festival – like poetry and like Nicaragua itself – is a dream which has somehow become reality.

Starting the Weekend with Bachata Fridays

Cuba Cafe, in Port Street (off Newton Street, Northern Quarter) – and of course Mo, our legendary host

Michal’s bachata class in full swing

Recently I’ve added a new element to my week’s dancing, by going to Michal’s Friday night bachata classes at Cuba Cafe in the Northern Quarter. (8.15 beginners, improvers 9.30 approx.)

I’d tried to learn bachata several times, at classes and workshops, but either the teachers didn’t go at the right pace, or the instructions weren’t clear, or the numbers were out of balance… So I didn’t really persist and never got beyond the simplest rudiments.

But I took some friends to Cuba Cafe for drinks a couple of months ago, and watching Michal’s class I was very impressed by the sheer good time everyone seemed to be having. A week or two later I went along, and found the class exactly right – for me, anyway.

Michal is a cheerful, amusing teacher, who has the knack of expalining things extremely clearly and beginning from a very basic level, yet effortlesly getting people dancing at quite a decent level by the end of the evening. Everyone has fun in the process, and the classes are also very good value – cheaper than many salsa classes in fact. To sum up, this is simply the best bachata class I’ve seen.

I’m now a regular, and while I won’t say I’m dancing brilliant bachata, at least I have a few basic moves, I feel I’m finally getting somewhere, and I’m loving Friday evenings. As a bonus, DJ Les (Mancuban, Salsa Republic) is having monthly party nights – The AfterParty – following on from the class, playing salsa, bachata, merengue, reggaeton from 12 midnight to 3 a.m. And if you’ve been to Michal’s bachata class first, you don’t even have to pay. Otherwise the AfterParty s a mere £3. For AfterParty dates you’ll need to check out Mancuban or Cuba Cafe websites or on Facebook.

As a PS, I hear Michal’s beautiful wife Anna has recently given birth to their daughter, so many congratulations to the whole family. And Michal tells me the classes are going ahead as usual. If you’re around Manchester on a Friday, give them a try.

Don’t Miss Ruben Blades on 28 July!

Ruben Blades

This is a very quick and brief post for any salsa freaks who don’t know that Ruben Blades, one of the greatest singer-songwriters in the genre, is playing a rare gig in London on 28 July. He’s a legendary performer and may never get to the UK again so if you can make it, do! He’s backed by what looks like an excellent orchestra so it should be a great night. This is probably our last chance to see an all-time great of the salsa tradition and you should do all you can to be there.

To book tickets, go to:http://www.o2shepherdsbushempire.co.uk/event/27695/ruben-blades-tickets

I’ll add a clip below of his classic song ‘Plastico’.