I don’t remember the date very well; it must have been wintertime in the late 1970s or early 80s. We were in high school, dressed in blue, and everybody—except me, because I didn’t know how—was dancing to a big hit by Juan Formell and Los Van Van.
I preferred the music that we got from the outside: the Bee Gees, Eagles, Aretha Franklin, Chicago, Marvin Gaye…. I didn’t like Los Van Van, and I would turn up the volume on the radio only to hear their song “Elisa,” a ballad featuring the voice of my Uncle Lázaro Morúa, who sang with them at the time. Actually, I listened to the song mostly because the fact my uncle was singing with Juan Formell and Los Van Van made me popular with other students.
Then I emigrated, and I left “Elisa” and Formell with his Van Van, ensconced within the borders of an island that was known not only for inspiring revolutionary movements all over America, but also for its own cultural explosion.
One day on an elevator in Philadelphia, an American guy asked me where I was from. “I’m Cuban, from Cuba,” I said. “Cuba! Where is Cuba?” he asked, amazed and maybe startled (it must be terrible not to know where a country is). “Cuba, an island in the Caribbean…Fidel Castro,” I answered in English. “Oh! Castro…Fidel Castro,” he almost shouted, even more alarmed. “Yes, Fidel,” I said. And all of a sudden, to my surprise he said, “Los Van Van, John Formell, the Rolling Stones of America.”
That stuck with me: a gringo in Philadelphia who didn’t know know where Cuba was, but who did know about Formell and Los Van Van.
Today, like millions of Cubans and lovers of good music, I am a fan of Los Van Van. I had the good fortune to meet and work with Juan, and spend time with his family and his lovely wife. I produced his last tour of the United States. I also had the misfortune of being one of the first to learn of his death, to arrive at his home, at the hospital, and to witness the grief of his family and his inseparable fellow musicians from Los Van Van, to see the departure of one of Cuba’s prodigious sons.
Juan is no longer with us; now he plays his bass, composes, arranges and defends his cubanía—his Cuban essence—on more distant stages. But what does distance matter? If you are a real Cuban, if you ever dance to Los Van Van, listen to me; when you finish reading this article, close your eyes, breathe deeply, and I bet you’ll hear his bass: “Cucun cun cun, cocun cun cun…”.