“Aunty, I’m at Casa de la Música. They stopped the concert. Elito (Revé) said that Formell has died. The musicians and everyone are crying. I can’t believe it.” That was how I found out, through a text message. Then came the mourning and the tributes, but I still feel like he’ll break the silence behind which he sometimes hid the rough patches in his life. Then I imagine him ready to answer those questions that I never got to ask.
Juan Formell was always a gentleman, even amid the stress of a concert. He demonstrated that a number of times: at the Concert for Peace, at La Tropical…. Once, during the closing ceremony of a Benny Moré Festival in the largest plaza of Cienfuegos, I saw him being harassed by some transvestite fans of Los Van Van: “Maestro, call us up to the stage,” Lázaro, the most uninhibited of the group, kept calling out to him. “I can’t do that,” Formell answered calmly. “It’s too small; keep enjoying yourselves there in the front row,” he said, laughing happily.
He walked among us as a simple mortal, even though part of him was more than that. Even after he was famous, the recipient of prizes and distinctions, he kept placing the highest priority on dancers. And that was confirmed for me in my last interview with him, part of which I have transcribed for OnCuba’s readers:
Late last year in the U.S. city of Las Vegas, Juan Formell Cortina (1942-2014), winner of Cuba’s National Music Award, was the recipient of a Latin Grammy for Musical Excellence. Others who were honored along with him included
Venezuela’s Oscar de León of Venezuela, Colombia’s Totó la Momposina, Spain’s Miguel Ríos, Argentina’s Palito Ortega and Puerto Rico’s Eddie Palmieri.
The spirit of the band founded by Formell in 1969 had reached dancers all over the world. Musicians, experts and producers from the U.S. National Academy of Recording Arts had also surrendered to the sound of Los Van Van, who fused contemporary with tradition for a sound full of life.
Weeks earlier, he had received another major award, the Womex (World Music Expo), in the UK’s Cardiff, Wales. He dedicated it to all musicians who work in the Third World, “away from the world of big labels and markets, but with tenacity and professionalism,” he said.
On the occasion of those awards, executives from the Artex Clave Cubana catalog, to which Los Van Van belongs, organized a press conference at the Delirio Habanero nightclub. Formell arrived with a big smile, as always, accompanied by his pregnant wife. A moment of chaos made it possible for me, recorder in hand, to approach him and obtain the following statements.
By now it is unquestionable that every single one of Los Van Van’s albums holds a piece of Cuba and of the best popular dance music in the world. Nevertheless, the Latin Grammys have been elusive, even after five nominations. Now the organizing committee has decided to give you an honorary prize. What do you make of this?
International juries and dancers all over the world have given serious recognition to the work of Los Van Van from a musical standpoint, because it has gotten people dancing for I don’t know how many years. The Concert for Peace and other things that have happened in this country in recent years are like a summary of all of that.
It is true that we’ve been nominated for a Latin Grammy five times, and you wonder why the award hasn’t come. I don’t have an answer, but I view this Grammy for Excellence as recognition of that, and a way of saying, “Hey, it’s about time, let’s give them some special appreciation.”
When Paco de Lucía gave a concert in Cuba (October, 2013) we heard musical excerpts from “Sandunguera.” You were there and enjoyed it. Other musicians, such as Rubén Blades, have played versions of your songs…
Yes, there are several versions of “Tal Vez,” one of them by Brazil’s María Betania with Omara Portuondo. There’s another by Rey Barreto. There’s a version of “Muévete” by Harry Belafonte with a South African chorus, and another by a Puerto Rican group called Batacumbele, and then there’s the one by Rubén Blades…. Really nice things have been done with our music.
How do you feel when you hear your music being performed by other singers or musicians?
The most important thing for a composer is to endure, that’s what you work for, and this is one of the ways you achieve it: when somebody, without you imposing on them, does a version of a composition that they heard at some point. I think that is the best type of recognition. Will my music last? Maybe, if 30 years from now people are still singing “Sandunguera” or any of my numbers. But I won’t be around to see it.
After so many years of work and so many hits, could it be said that you have found the secret to making a song popular, on everyone’s lips?
That’s something we don’t know; it’s always a surprise. What I have realized is that sometimes a very simple thing, something that’s not complicated at all but that touches spots and elicits responses that are common to millions of people, can define a number’s success. When you achieve that, you analyze it and say to yourself, What happened? What did I do?
It’s something that can’t be copied. I couldn’t do another number like “La compota de palo,” or “Sanduguera,” or “La cabeza mala.” It’s enough to have that recognition that you get and the experience of going through something like that. The rest is a mystery.
But you were able to work out the secret to having popular vocalists…
Well, yes, that’s true. You choose your vocalists based on experience, and you do it taking the long view. Regardless, there’s always a little bit of doubt, and you tell yourself, I think this could work. A lot of times you’re on the ball, but to say that you know exactly who is going to make a certain song stick and who isn’t, that’s just false. Nobody ever knows exactly how something is going to be. You’re never always right. That’s something for the dancers, and the public.